OSEAH PHILEMON CHAMPIONED FREEDOM OF PRESS AGAINST TWO PRIME MINISTERS
Kevin Rozzoli & Quinton Clements with Mr Oseah Philemon, then President of the PNG Media Council.
by An Old Friend and Admirer
Late Oseah Philemon always tried his best to do what was right for the good of PNG. He took seriously his responsibility to uphold freedom of the press. He resisted political interference and attempts to control what was reported by the Post Courier. He told me once that if he compromised his ideals on keeping political interference out of the Newspaper Business there would be no reversing the trend once it started. He was an excellent journalist who will be very hard to replace.
I have 2 Stories to tell as my personal tribute to my dear friend. Both seem to me as relevant to what is taking place today in the newspapers. Those who regularly read the Post Courier in the 90s would have seen evidence of both these stories I am about to tell, but would not have known what happened behind the scenes.
Oseah and I were from different walks of life but enjoyed each others company very much on those rare occasions we met. He might have shared his inner thoughts and secret stories with me because I knew no one in his area of work nor any politicians that I could share the stories with. However I have always been keenly interested in PNG politics and current events which is why I never forget these stories and remember most of the details. Let me share but asking the PNG Blogs to keep my real name private being that there may still be lingering anger associated with both incidents.
The Somare Families Stage 5 Cyclone Reaction To A Published Letter
This story took place around 1992 or 1993.
Before Oseah was editor or maybe going into his early years, letters sent to the PC for publication were very mild in their criticism of leaders. Most letters in fact praised PNG leaders. Oseah said it was village respect carried over to modern times but it annoyed him because he felt that the newspapers offered opportunity for people to get their unhappiness at leaders off their shoulders and they weren’t taking advantage.
He was delighted during the early 1990s when more harshly worded letters to the editor began coming across his desk. He wanted to encourage this due to the pressure they put on politicians.
He told me he approved their publication nearly always. He was happy that more people were putting their anger into words that attracted the attention of the nation. Now he was publishing letters now and again by writers who stood up against politicians and often got a reaction from the politician in turn.
Oseah said that most all these letters would not be signed by the writer or if they were, they almost always wanted a Pen Name used. Oseah felt the writers were trusting him not to betray their identity and took that trust seriously. He would not show the real names of the writers to politicians who burst into his office demanding to know the writer’s identity.
He also told me that this could get him into big trouble, even lose his job. He felt he walked a fine line because PNG’s leaders lashed out against strong criticism and could take out their resentment on the PC itself through Defamation Court Cases. My friend told me that many politicians, including the Prime Ministers of the day would sometimes call and shout at him over the phone or threaten that he would lose his job when they took the PC to court over defamatory comment. Oseah once told me how concerned he was that so few politicians appreciated the important role of a free and uncensored press.
Oseah was never afraid to take whatever risks necessary that allowed him to stay true to his beliefs. He never told me that directly but it became clear by how he dealt with crises. That leads me to my first story, the day when he received a letter to the editor complaining about Sir Michael Somare. I believe he must have been Foreign Minister at that time. The letter was worded in an especially cutting way and making fun of Sir Michael’s dressing style of the colonial laplap. At the time Oseah wasn’t getting on with Sir Michael anyway but to make fun of a leader, especially Sir Michael , was unheard of at that time.
Oseah was concerned about the tone of the letter but felt that it made a valid point. He decided to publish it. I seem to recall that he made a courtesy notification to Sir Michael that the letter would come out since he did that often for similar cases.
I am fuzzy about some of the details of what Oseah told me happened next. I do remember him saying that the Somare family came down on his head like a cyclone. The Somares were outraged by the letter. They threatened Oseah that if anyone in PNG saw or read that letter, he would surely lose his job.
Oseah went ahead and had publication of the letter approved. If I recall the story correctly at the last minute Oseah was overruled by his superiors and there was a frantic effort to pull every single newspaper for that day before distribution. Destroy every one before any Papua New Guinean could buy their daily PC. However some papers had already gone on early Air Niugini flights to outlying parts of the country. A few were even distributed during early morning in Port Moresby but hardly anyone in Moresby was able to get a PC that day.
The National did not exist then and the PC had the highest circulation of any newspaper. Its disappearance was well noted. People looked everywhere but no PC. The PC owned some South Pacific Post news agency stores in Moresby but they didn’t carry the PC that day either and staff were not told what happened.
Nearly all of the newspapers were destroyed, which cost the Post Courier dearly. That they would have destroyed the newspapers for that day shows how much power Sir Michael had in those days. It also shows how brave my late friend was in standing up to Sir Michael.
The story goes on. Somehow one copy got to the Michael T Somare Library at UPNG. Staff put it on the news rack but by the next day that rare copy had been discovered and vandalized by a Somare supporter, with the offending letter carefully cut out of the page. When Oseah told me all this he was chuckling but I can imagine that he must have been nervous about the outcome at the time.
The story goes on. It would have been better if the Somares had left it at that. Instead, both his son Arthur and daughter Betha wrote separate, extremely angry letters to Oseah on the day the offensive letter came out, telling him that he should have never published what was the most terrible letter against their father ever to appear in PNG history . Oseah duly took those 2 letters and published them in the next day’s PC, thereby informing the people of PNG indirectly the story of the missing newspapers and the power of Sir Michael Somare.
In the end, Oseah had the last word and the Somare’s came off like an offended royal family. Oseah felt that the Somare family’s actions were destructive to freedom of the press and damaging to PNG democracy. One could say that the Somare Family trampled the constitution and got their way against the PC.
Sir Julius Chan And His Staff’s Nuclear Explosion Reaction To One Published Letter
The second story is one that would have taken place around 1995 or 1996. It involved Sir Julius Chan as Prime Minister. It was another case of Oseah publishing letters that were offensive to politicians and not backing down.
This was only a few years after the Somare letter had been published but times were changing. Oseah was delighted at the vibrancy of many letters that now landed on his desk although he shook his head a bit that nearly all of them either requested Pen Names or seemed to have real names that were made up. The problem with the made up real names is that it prevented the PC from shifting legal responsibility to the letter writer in the event of a defamation case brought against the PC by the offended politician.
The easy solution would have been for Oseah to throw away all letters which did not have a verifiable name and contact but he was more concerned about the power of the words of the letter than whether or not the PC could escape liability for publishing those words. Again he told me that he had to do the right thing for the good of the nation. He told me he published many letters that had no traceable origin but obviously written by a concerned citizen who made valuable points in powerful ways that he respected.
As Prime Minister, Sir J seemed to bring out anger in people more effectively than any other PM and Oseah was receiving more strongly worded complaint letters to the editor than ever. Oseah was personally concerned about Sir Julius’ ethics, particularly the overlap of Personal Business with Public Service. Oseah personally did not like Sir J’s bringing in of Chinese Business partners and others into PNG. It might be said that Sir J had a talent for rubbing many people the wrong way and Oseah Philemon wanted to make sure that those people were given a voice by the PC to speak their minds.
Oseah told me at the time that Sir J was infuriated at the tone of certain letters to the editor about his leadership. He felt that the tone of the letters was mocking and thus defamatory. Oseah felt that the humorous slant of many letters was exactly what allowed them to escape the legal definition of being defamatory.
Sir J demanded that such letters not be published. Oseah, as usual, ignored Sir J’s political pressure and the letters kept coming out.
Then came the letter that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. I remember this well because I happened to have lunch with Oseah either that day or the following one and he told me that his head was on the line again. That did not stop him from exercising a stubborn resolve not to give in to political pressure. This is what made him exceptional and a very great journalist for PNG.
The letter that caused Sir J to blow up was a ahort one. Actually I would have been surprised if anyone outside Sir J and others in the Prime Minister’s office would have noticed it. It was a story about the irony of Sir J’s disappearing allergy to flowers. It noted an earlier complaint published in the PC that someone had placed frangipani flowers around Sir J’s neck during the ribbon cutting of the first ATM in PNG. Sir J in response suffered an allergic reaction. The letter compared the allergic reaction to flowers in PNG against a photo that just appeared in the PC, showing Sir J visiting a large logging operation in Asia, with lots of flowers arranged all around his neck. The letter said something to the effect of how ironic that the allergy to flowers strangely disappeared whenever the PM went to visit the Asians.
Oseah told me the Chan camp blew up when that letter came out. Mr Franzalbert Joku, Former Journalist with The Times (a church owned PNG newspaper) was Sir J’s Press Agent. He fired off a furious reply to Oseah about the flower allergy letter. Mr Joku’s letter complained that Oseah had been warned in no uncertain terms no to publish that letter as it was defamatory. Because Oseah ignored the warning and published it anyway, the PC had caused Sir J major loss of reputation.
Oseah felt that sharing Mr Joku’s letter with the nation was better than keeping it secret. He once told me that the political pressure that went on behind the scenes was like blackmail and he refused to entertain it. By publishing threatening letters sent to him by politicians, their staff or family, Oseah revealed to the nation the political pressure on the PC that had gone on behind the scenes.
I seem to recall that no court case came out of this but Oseah was not sleeping well during that blowout. He later allowed publication of a long editorial by Sir J’s Chief of Staff, Sir Frederick Reiher, that accused many of the letters against Sir J being written by a single unidentified person who was out to get the Prime Minister. Oseah told me that many of the letters did probably come from one person but that letters against Sir J in general were coming from all directions.
I lost contact with Oseah about 15 years ago when my family and I left Port Moresby. Oseah’s death comes as a real shock. I will always treasure the time I spent with him and the entertaining stories he told.
Note that a man of such high caliber as Oseah Philemon was able to resist and get the better of the politicians, while continuing to keep his job. There were two types of actions that he was ahead of his time in taking. His first brave action was to publish the findings of the PC whether or not particular politicians wanted the information published. The same does not seem to be true of today’s newspapers editors in PNG.
Oseah’s second brave action was to understand the power of transparency in fighting corruption. In each of the 2 stories, I have described a situation where a politician and staff were corruptly trying to pressure Oseah into not publishing something critical of that politician.
In both cases, Oseah not only went ahead and published, he also published the followup letters by the politicians, their staff, or their family. In doing so he kept his office door open to the nation, sounding a warning himself to politicians that if they dare tried to pressure him any further, he would reveal each and every one of the pressures.
In every case, over a period of more than 20 years, the politicians always backed off and Oseah kept his job. I will sorely miss Oseah Philemon, a man with such high personal character.