The cards seem firmly stacked against optimism on the streets of Papua New Guinea at the moment. It’s a bad sign in an election year, with little confidence evident that the outcome will correct our Pacific neighbour’s course from the particularly rocky path it’s taken in recent months.
But here — like elsewhere in the developing world where obscene power disparity is mobilising the masses — a wellspring of resistance is brewing.
In the past two years, a plethora of political blogs and Facebook chatter has sprung up, fulfilling a watchdog role the government and mainstream media have been deemed incapable of.
The targets of the new media vanguard are corruption, incompetence, and multinational corporations that get a free ride by the government at the expense of PNG’s downtrodden masses.
Potential for exploitation stands to reach new heights in coming years, with mammoth new projects in the pipeline including ExxonMobil’s $US15.7 billion LNG project in the Southern Highlands, and a growing Chinese interest being courted.
However, a growing web buzz representing savvy, pissed off Papua New Guineans is showing promising signs of being able to hold dodgy corporates to account.
Daily dispatches on Papua New Guinea Minewatch and LNG Watch blogs, for instance, have exposed an alleged whitewash by the government and ExxonMobil over a landslide near its major LNG project last month that killed at least 25 people.
“I want to be a middle man between the government and ExxonMobil, so that the landowners’ grievances about the project cannot be overlooked,” LNG Watch’s Stanley Mamu said. “The landowners at Bougainville had no middle man, and it caused a war.”
Meanwhile, PNG Exposed’s campaign for justice over a ferry that sank in January, claiming 200 lives, contributed to the government ordering an independent investigation into the tragedy. The Act Now! site is taking online activism a step further, galvanising a previously suppressed citizen voice via email campaigns a la Avaaz and GetUp!
But the burgeoning movement’s most prominent force is a Port Moresby betel-nut street vendor.
Martyn Namarong’s politically charged, plain-talking blog gets up to 3000 hits a day, a not-insignificant figure in a country where only 60,000-70,000 people have Facebook accounts.
In 2011 Namarong Report also became a key source for news media both domestic and international, as its coverage of the January military “coup” by a retired colonel proved.
“I can say that some of us, well particularly myself, shaped the story when the mutiny happened,” Namarong told me in Madang. “I created the Twitter hashtag #pngcoup, and everybody called it a coup. And it wasn’t a coup. We framed it that way because we knew the vast majority of Papua New Guineans would not back it.” Indeed, the attempt fizzled out almost immediately.
The government is slowly coming to grips with the threat: it recently advertised for staff for a social media department, and earlier this month issued a threat that people spreading “misinformation” faced arrest. The anti-censorship backlash was mushrooming at the time of print.
Prime Minister chief-of-staff Ben Micah made the comments “following recent circulation of anti-government information via text messages on mobile phones, email messages and comments being posted on social network site, Facebook … [designed] to destabilise the government’s firm control of the country.”
Is this the beginning of a Melanesian Spring? Namarong thinks Papua New Guinea is not there yet.
“The thing is those ideas haven’t crystallised in people here,” he said. “But internet use is growing, Facebook’s going to grow exponentially, and that change is going to come quicker. I now think if there has to be change in this country, it’s probably going to come in the next five to 10 years.
“The people of Papua New Guinea now have the upper hand over all those people who have been cheating them because some of us are willing to, you know, dispel all the bullshit.”
*Andrew Pascoe is a freelance journalist from Western Australia. He is currently researching dimensions of civil society in Papua New Guinea.