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Addressing our image problem


Papua New Guinea has featured regularly in the international media in the last couple of weeks, and unfortunately, the coverage has been mostly negative.

The sole exception has been the recent positive reports on the national election in a few Australian and New Zealand media outlets such as the ABC and Radio New Zealand International. This was particularly the case after the initial problems with the common rolls, delayed polling and early poll-related violence receded and the elections got into full swing.

Last week’s Hevilift helicopter crash in which two Australians and a New Zealander died understandably received widespread coverage in Australia and New Zealand. The story featured prominently for nearly a week as the search for the missing crew continued until the discovery of their bodies in the Gulf province.

Media outlets ranging from the online edition of the prestigious Time magazine in the United States to newspapers in countries such as Pakistan, have been including stories from PNG in their coverage.
The story that has attracted the most interest is the arrest of a large number of alleged “cannibal cult” members in the interiors of Madang province.

 This story has generated a lot of fascination in the international media, not least because of the alleged “penis soup” and human brain diet of the cult’s followers. One celebrity news and gossip website in the US, www.perezhilton.com, had a field day with the story. Under a section titled Wacky, Tacky and True, it headlined the story “Papua New Guinea Cannibals Murder Sorcerers, Make D**k Soup’’.

 The following is an extract from the website’s derisive report: “Mmm, mmm ... What the heck!? Vigilantes in Papua New Guinea are murdering sorcerers and eating their penises in soup!!! We’ve heard of Chicken Soup for the Soul... but D**k Soup for the Witch Hunter??
“There aren’t enough licensed medical examiners in PNG because they’re paying sorcerers to determine causes of death.

“Sadly, most don’t take American Express but you can pay in poonani! “One arrested vigilante admitted: ‘We ate their brains raw and took body parts such as livers, hearts, penis and others back to the hausman (traditional men’s houses) for our chief trainers to create other powers for the members to use.’ Uhhh ... Of course you did. “One local cop was happy to share more deets on the vigilante operation.
He said: “These people never kill sorcerers in broad daylight, mutilate and eat sorcerers’ flesh, livers and hearts or make soup from the penis of sorcerers.”

“No offense to our lovely PNG readers, but Groupon will have to offer one HECK of a special before we ever vacay there!!’ The above report illustrates why PNG continues to suffer from an image problem in the international community. One such article does more damage than a hundred positive stories about the
country’s natural beauty or the people’s hospitality.

Of course there is no point in shooting the messenger. There would be no story if the cult’s alleged activities did not happen in the first place. Full stop. It is de rigueur for the media to pounce on bizarre happenings from around the world and serve them to its voyeuristic audiences.
Contrast the website’s story with the following exchange this week between a Sydney Morning Herald reader and the paper’s travel writer, Michael Gebicki.

The reader writes: “I’ve nursed a long fascination with Papua New Guinea and, in particular, its various tribal cultures. “I’m planning a trip that includes the highlands and a cruise along the Sepik River and perhaps some of the islands. “However, I have nagging worries about personal security for travellers.
“Am I right to be concerned, and how can I make sure that I travel safely in this part of the world?’’
Gebicki’s reply, under the headline “Fascination deserved, dangerous image is not’’, reads: “Our neighbour is painted as mad, bad and dangerous by the media, yet the image is largely undeserved.
“While it’s true Port Moresby has a crime rate that requires a high degree of caution, the capital city ranks low on the country’s list of attractions, and there is no compelling reason for visitors to spend even a single night there.

“You do need to visit Papua New Guinea on a tour organised by a reputable operator ...
“I have travelled extensively in Papua New Guinea during eight visits since the mid-1980s.
“The only time anything untoward happened was in the market in Madang, where a photographic flash was removed from my backpack, which I’d probably left gaping.
“The culprit was a young bloke, who was tackled by a woman stallholder and given a thorough tongue lashing before the flash was returned to me.’’
Gebicki’s assurance will undoubtedly encourage the letter writer and other potential visitors to cast aside their concerns and make the trip to the land of the unexpected.
But when they get there, it is the responsibility of every Papua New Guinean to make sure they do not encounter any nasty surprises.

Tens of thousands of tourists visit PNG each year from all corners of the globe. More than 99% of them experience the breathtaking scenery, the awesome culture and the hospitality of the people.
Yet, it is the isolated rape of an expatriate tourist or the hold-up of a cruise ship passenger that makes the news internationally. The obvious solution is to ensure that such unfortunate events do not befall our visitors. For that to happen, we must start by treating our own countrymen as our brothers and sisters, not as strangers or enemies from a different tribe, clan or province.
Charity, courtesy and civility all begin at home. A single act of kindness can make a world of difference.

Sanjay Bhosale, a former associate editor of The National, is a Canberra journalist.