THEt the end of April, a reporter and a cameraman stood outside the national parliament in Honiara. They were trying to film the Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, as he walked in. But police arrived and chased them from the building.
It prompted outrage among journalists. As they stood around discussing it cathedral afterwards, one said in Pijin: “Ma any,” meaning “as if it’s a cathedral” – a sacred place where filming is inappropriate. Everyone burst out laughing. This was a democratic country’s parliament, which journalists have a duty to cover.
The incident was a sign of how secretive the government has been since the draft security agreement between China and Solomon Islands was leaked online.
In my nearly 35 years in journalism, I have never experienced such a blackout.
The government has refused to release the text of the deal. They have also refused to give interviews, while texts to longstanding contacts in the government go unanswered and calls unreturned.
Sogavare seems to think the local media have joined forces with foreign entities to attack him personally or his government’s decision to switch allegiances to China. He refuses to be interviewed by local media and often attacks the media on the floor of parliament.
Sources outside Solomon Islands are afraid to say anything too strong, in case it affects their ability to visit Solomon Islands again, given Covid restrictions mean the government has to grant personal exemptions to travel to the country.
There is also fear of ridicule and online bullying on Facebook if anyone takes a certain position on the debate about China.
Solomon Islands is experiencing the closing of doors and controlled dissemination of information from the prime minister’s office. This has been seen for years in nearby Fiji but is new to Solomon Islands media. Since independence, the media in Solomon Islands has enjoyed free access to our leaders.
The language on the floor of parliament is also changing, with politicians blaming the media for causing the uprising among the youth. At one stage, they even wanted to ban Facebook.
Ironically, it has come as the Solomon Islands remains the focus of international news day after day. Local reporters have been swamped by overseas media reaching out to them for content.
. This has given the local media a voice and stronger participation in telling their story, with Australian and other foreign media unable to fly in because of the border closures.
But it has come at a hard time for journalism in Solomon Islands. In the last six months the industry has lost nearly 10 journalists to public relations jobs. The two main daily newspapers have also shrunk from A3 to A4 size since Covid-19 hit. And many of their staff were laid off or left for financial reasons.
It’s a sad state of affairs. Most of our journalists are trained in Fiji and some in Australia. And there are some who are taken straight out of high school or tertiary level to work in newspapers.
As we deal with the attention our country is getting since the signing of the security agreement with China, it is now more important than ever to have a free press and a government that wants to communicate their actions to their people.
Georgina Kekea, the president of the Media Association of the Solomon Islands, is constantly writing to the prime minister’s about the need to give access to journalists, which is enshrined in our constitution.
Since the draft agreement was leaked, we have seen arrivals of diplomatic envoys from overseas – the Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese and the big boys, the US. The joke among us is that it took a deal with China for the US to realize we exist.
The first reaction of many Solomon Islanders when the US delegation turn up was: please remind them to clean up the second world war bombs killing people.
The China security treaty has changed the political landscape, and tested the Solomon Islands government’s commitment to a free press. We now watch to see if it affects other important institutions here.