China Snubs Pacific Media as Islands Navigate Between Continents

On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will wrap up his ten-day tour of eight Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Having initially aimed for an ambitious multilateral pact on security and development, he has reluctantly settled for a series of smaller bilateral agreements. His trip has also reinvigorated Australian and American outreach in the Pacific, and renewed attention to China’s hostility toward the free press. The restricted media access during Wang’s visits highlights the precarious state of press freedom in the Pacific, exacerbated by outside powers dueling for influence over Pacific Islanders whose own interests have long been ignored. 

The first stop on Wang’s tour was the Solomon Islands, where the government had signed a secret security agreement with China that was leaked in March. During Wang’s stay, journalists from international outlets said they were blocked from attending press events, and the level of secrecy surrounding his meetings with the government led the Media Association of the Solomon Islands (MASI) to call on local media to boycott coverage of the visit. Radio New Zealand described the “ridiculous” restrictions in place at the only press conference of Wang’s visit to the Solomon Islands:

[…] MASI president Georgina Kekea said it was disappointed that the media were only allowed limited access to the visit.

[…] She said only two questions could be asked, one from a local journalist directed to the Solomon Islands foreign affairs minister, and one from Chinese media, directed to their foreign affairs minister.

[…] “What is the purpose of hosting such an event for the press when they are only allowed one question and directed to their foreign minister only?”

[…] She said the reason given that the arrangements were done that way because of covid-19 protocols did not stack up.

“We have community transmission, people are crowded in buses, shops, markets, banks and so forth, so this is a very lame excuse,” she said. [Source]

There were similar attempts to restrict press access during Wang’s visit to Samoa last Saturday. As Samoan journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson described (at 26:25) in a Twitter Space conversation about the Pacific media’s treatment during China’s tour, the media were allowed only a five-minute photo-op with no questions or individual interviews, and there was no press briefing before or after Wang’s visit. On Wang’s visit to Fiji, no questions were allowed during the brief joint press conference on Monday between Wang and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. Local media later reported that, according to Fijian officials, the no-question policy came from the Chinese side. Kate Lyons from The Guardian described how the Chinese delegation controlled the joint press conference, and even physically interfered with local journalists

“From the very beginning there was a lot of secrecy, no transparency, no access given,” said [Fijian journalist Lice Movono].

She said that media who had been granted permission to cover the visit – including her – had their media passes revoked without explanation, and that she and her camera operator were ordered by police to leave the lobby of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, where they were set to film the beginning of the meeting between Wang and Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, on Monday.

On Sunday, as media set up to film the arrival of Wang at the Pacific Islands Forum building for a meeting with its secretary general, Henry Puna, the ABC was blocked from filming, despite having been given permission to do so. The Pacific Islands Forum intervened to allow the filming to continue, but Movono said that Chinese officials stood in front of the camera, trying to block the shot.

Movono said that the joint press conference from Wang and Bainimarama on Monday afternoon was managed by Chinese officials.

“The media briefing itself was run by the visiting government, the press passes were issued by the Chinese government,” she said. “They instructed us we would not be allowed to ask questions. When some of us yelled out questions anyway a Chinese government official yelled out to stop.” [Source]

There were other signs of Chinese influence in the Pacific media’s coverage of Wang’s visit. In the local outlet Fiji Sun, on May 26, Chinese Ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo wrote a full-page op-ed describing China’s engagement with Pacific Island countries as “open and transparent,” in contrast to the highly restricted press access during Wang’s visit. Then, on Tuesday, the Fiji Sun ran a “News” article written by the Chinese embassy in Fiji touting the “great success” of Wang’s visit. The outlet ran two other “News” articles this week titled “Friends Always” and “China Has No Hidden Agenda: Qian,” which provided favorable coverage of Wang and Qian’s remarks that praised win-win cooperation and urged the media to “rise above political punditry.” While the latter two articles were published under local bylines, the Fiji Sun has a content-sharing agreement with Xinhua, as documented by its other news articles under a Xinhua byline

In one of Tonga’s leading newspapers, Matangi Tonga, Chinese Ambassador to Tonga Cao Xiaolin wrote a long article on Monday, a day before Wang’s visit to the country, that described how “China has never interfered in the internal affairs of [Pacific Island countries]” and would “adhere to openness.” The article was appropriately labeled as sponsored content, and in contrast with coverage in the Fiji Sun, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong was also given space in Matangi Tonga for her own article the day before, containing a speech she gave to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat earlier that week. 

China has also hosted training programs for Pacific journalists on numerous occasions, dating back at least to 2015. Many of these programs run under the China-Asia Pacific Press Center, to which the Fiji Sun has sent several of its editorial staff. As researchers have documented, while these Chinese training programs for foreign journalists do provide participants with certain forms of individual empowerment, some participants return home to write more positively about China. The programs and other pressures to carry Chinese government-produced content risk making Pacific media less inclined toward justified criticism of China. In a particularly nefarious example one week before Wang’s tour, a reporter from Papua New Guinea’s Post Courier wrote a blog post, later picked up by the Solomon Times, alleging that Chinese embassy staff had bribed managers and journalists from two local outlets in return for favorable coverage. Commenting on the “Pacific’s delicate dance with China” in Vanuatu’s Daily Post on Tuesday, Vanuatu-based journalist and policy analyst Ben Bohane stated: “We may need to help sand-bag national broadcasters across the Pacific who are underfunded and being courted by China. […] Without a free press, democracy itself will wither in the Pacific.” 

The press restrictions surrounding Wang’s Pacific tour garnered international condemnation. The International Federation of Journalists stated: “The restriction of journalists and media organisations from the Chinese delegation’s visit to Solomon Islands sets a worrying precedent for press freedom in the Pacific.” However, as the Fijian Media Association noted on Tuesday in a Facebook post, “This is not limited to China. When the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited Fiji in February this year, only one media organisation in Fiji was chosen to ask one single question during his entire visit.” Edwina Seselja and Joshua Boscaini from Australia’s ABC news described how China is only one factor in the trend of declining press freedom in the Pacific:

“What we know is that the region has been moving closer to China in all sorts of ways and this trip was very clearly an attempt by China to cement its relationship and deepen its relationship across the region,” said [Peter Greste, director for the Alliance of Journalists’ Freedom and a professor of journalism at Macquarie University].

“At the same time, we’re seeing a greater tendency by a lot of those regional states to clamp down on the flow of information and journalist access.

“And we’ve seen a lot of attempts by governments to use punitive actions to control.” 

“It’s hard to say that those two things are directly connected, that China is directly responsible for causing this or whether there’s … soft influence or whether it’s just simply a coincidence. 

“Whatever is causing that trend, I think we need to start arguing very, very forcefully for reversal.” [Source]

Noting historical precedents of outside powers exacerbating restrictions on press freedom and neglecting local interests, Pacific media have called for better engagement by both China and the United States. In Papua New Guinea, an editorial by The National on Thursday stated: “Pacific Islanders need to see commitment rather than hear of partnerships for prosperity, peace and security from countries like the US, Australia, England and New Zealand which are established and traditional allies. The two world wars have established those enduring ties but for many it would seem the relationships have hardly moved from those years.” In Samoa, which celebrated 60 years of independence on Wednesday, an editorial by the Samoa Observer on Thursday highlighted the importance preserving values such as press freedom in Samoa’s interactions with outside powers, adding, “our leaders should continue to be vigilant and ensure our cultural and democratic values as well as identity as a people are not traded for short-term gain at the expense of Samoa’s next generation.” 

While hoping for higher standards from their partners, Pacific Island states may capitalize on the global spotlight to obtain better deals. As Cobus van Staden wrote for the China-Global South Project—formerly China-Africa Project—China’s new presence in the Pacific provides a historically unique opportunity to maximize the payout from prospective partners:

The backstory to this sudden eagerness to hear from these countries is of course a case of backyard-ism. Both Australia, in the case of the Pacific Islands, and Europe in Africa’s case, have long taken their dominance in these regions for granted. Australian leaders literally laughing at the existential danger of sea-level rise to these countries is just one example of this lack of respect. For all [Australian Foreign Minister Penny] Wong’s messages of ‘hearing’ these countries, we still need to see whether Canberra will actually pull back on its death-cult fixation on coal. Despite years of pleas from these countries for something – anything – on climate change, none of the Quad members have deigned to do so.

China isn’t much better on any of these counts – but that’s the point. It doesn’t have to be much better at anything – even a little better would already radically change these countries’ options. That’s a key parallel with Africa: China’s relationship with the continent didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a direct response to Africa’s earlier relationships – all so lackluster, and all so ripe for disruption. 

[…] China’s arrival is making Western countries really nervous. This opens a historically unique window of opportunity that won’t last forever. Now suddenly Washington and Canberra want to ‘partner’ with you on ICT, on climate, on whatever? Make them prove it. Make them pay. [Source]

For some Pacific Island countries looking to cash in, as Arieta Vakasukawaqa wrote for the Fiji Times, China has become a viable option, in spite of Western pressure:

“The western powers who have been historically and geographically close to Pacific Island Countries will always be considered by us as comprising the first circle of our friends,” [said Joji Kotobalavu, lecturer at the University of Fiji School of Law and former permanent secretary at the prime minister’s office of four of Fiji’s prime ministers.]

“But they should never presume that just because they consider China as the principal threat to their state security interests, Fiji and other Pacific island states should also consider China from the same perspective.”

[…] “Fiji is a sovereign independent state and as such in conducting relations with other states its foreign policy must always be based on policy objectives which our elected Government considers in the best interests of our country. In that context, our Government has done absolutely the right approach in signing an economic co-operation agreement with China.” [Source]

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