Ben Micah, a controversial former MP who now works as chief of staff to parliament-elected Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, released a statement last Wednesday warning the PNG army, police and spy agency National Intelligence Organisation (NIO) were monitoring attempts to destabilise the government using emails, phones and social media.
However, the regime's Big Brother-like scrutiny has attracted the attention of global free press watchdog International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and media commentators, and triggered the ire of ordinary Papua New Guineans.
Media commentators have described the O’Neill government’s crackdown as having “Gestapo-like” features, in reference to the German secret police which operated under Hitler’s Nazi regime, and asked whether the state apparatus will also be monitoring the plethora of PNG social media discussion forums.
The IFJ said it was concerned that the O’Neill government planned to track down people at the center of anti-government information.
“The release states that any person found using their mobile phone, email or Facebook to spread information considered 'malicious and misleading' will be considered to have committed a serious crime and will be 'dealt with'. The statement raises strong concerns for free speech and individual privacy rights, as it appears to criminalise the personal use of phones, email and social networking websites without a clear legal mandate. The statement also threatens unspecified punishment for those found to be using personal communications technology in a manner deemed “illegal and detrimental”,” the IFJ said in a statement.
The organisation added that freedom of speech was “a key requirement of good governance” and attempts to censor or punish Papua New Guineans for making anti-government comments violated that principle.
“Freedom of speech is a key requirement of good governance. Policies and laws which attempt to censor or punish those expressing themselves online, or via other communications technologies, violate this core principle of democracy. The IFJ believes that PNG’s existing laws are sufficient to allow authorities to investigate legitimate acts of subversion, and urges the government of PNG to reconsider any plans it may have for the monitoring and criminalisation of personal communications. The press and public should be able to express themselves freely without fear of intimidation or criminal prosecution.”
Papua New Guineans also took to Facebook, the social media platform which Mr Micah claims they are monitoring, to condemn his statement and denounce the establishment of a government committee that would “monitor and track down people”.
“Ulterior motives to destabilize the government? What about accountability to the people that elected them in or listening to people's concerns and coming up with solutions to improve? Lots of opportunity for the PM media unit to go onto Facebook and write a statement in defense or clarify any misleading information,” said a member of Sharp Talk, an eminent PNG Facebook discussion group that has a membership of over 4000 people.
Another Sharp Talk member added: “We are not in China or a communist state. We have the democratic right to say want we want against our government or opposition for that matter. Government is for the people and elected by the people.”
PNG was ranked 35th in the 2011/12 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, scoring the highest of all Pacific Island countries excluding Australia and New Zealand. However last December’s constitutional crisis and the chain of events that followed saw journalists threatened by soldiers and barred from news conferences, developments which are likely to impact negatively on PNG’s ranking in the 2012/13 index.