Coping with the turbulence part of the job in PNG

Coping with the turbulence part of the job in PNGPapua New Guinea Post-Courier editor Alexander Rheeney and chief of staff Gorethy Kenneth at the paper’s head office in Port Moresby.

The newspaper was founded in 1969, six years before PNG gained independence, and the fate of the two has been closely linked since.

Today it has around 186 employees (54 in editorial) across its head office in Port Moresby and six regional offices in Lae, Mount Hagen, Rabaul, Buka, Madang and Arawa.

News Limited owns 62.5 percent of the paper, with large stakes held by PNG-based shareholders such as Nambwan Super and the Defence Force Retirement Fund.

Circulation has increased 13 percent year-on-year from around 26,000 to 29,500.

General manager Blaise Nangoi attributes the growth to the country’s strong interest in politics. A general election last year coincided with the Post-Courier’s circulation peaks of up to 40,000 daily.

“An interest in how the new government is performing has also helped us,” Mr Nangoi said. “In PNG, political news, it sells us,” Mr Nangoi said.

One of the newsroom challenges in PNG is regular threats that reporters receive from those in power who don’t agree with the Post-Courier’s coverage of them.

Post-Courier editor Alexander Rheeney spent around seven years as a reporter with the masthead in the early 2000s before working for the British Embassy in Port Moresby, the World Bank and Lowy Institute for International Policy.

He returned to the newsroom last December after picking up a Master of Cross Cultural Communication at the University of Sydney.

It is common for MPs in PNG to pressure reporters on the politics, police and security rounds to guarantee their side of an issue receives coverage.

Mr Rheeney is well placed to navigate what he calls an “occupational hazard”. During his time as a political reporter he was called before the Parliamentary Privileges Committee

numerous times for perceived biased reporting.

Mr Nangoi agrees it is an editorial challenge operating a newspaper in a society where “whatever the big man says goes”.

Management’s strategy is to maintain confidence in their reporters’ news judgment and assure their physical security.

“We know the environment … we know when to put the pressure on, when to release it, or sit it out when things become a bit hot,” Mr Nangoi said.

“It’s a juggling act every day for the reporters and for the editor especially.”

The other major challenge is delivering the paper to the mountainous country where the majority of the population lives in regional areas with limited road access.

The entirety of the Post-Courier’s print run outside Port Moresby (around 50 to 60 percent) is distributed via air. While management aims to distribute the newspaper to all 22 of PNG’s provinces, they are reliant on airlines taking off on time, which Mr Nangoi describes as “hardly the case”.

The newspaper is printed at 3am daily before being put on planes between 4:30am and 11am and flown to regional centres where it is distributed to street sellers or transported further on public motor vehicles.

It’s a logistical nightmare that often results in people reading the newspaper two or three days after publication, according to Mr Nangoi.

In many parts of PNG there is limited access to a telephone let alone internet and some remote areas are only accessed twice weekly via air.

“People are totally reliant on the newspaper to give them the news from around the world and Port Moresby,” Mr Nangoi says.

Nevertheless, the Post-Courier is currently planning to move to a new website with more interactive features. Port Moresby’s population is increasingly gaining internet access and becoming active on social media sites such as Facebook.

The challenge once the new website launches will be how to increase capacity to offer 24/7 news updates in order to cater to the growing online community in PNG and internationally.

Mr Rheeney has also recently implemented the concept of regular “special reports” on issues of immediate concern to Papua New Guineans.

A February special report timed with the start of the school year focused on the rise of ‘cults’ and fights in schools, but Mr Rheeney was disappointed to see the education department pass-off responsibility to individual schools.

Another special report ran on the anniversary of the sinking of passenger ferry the MV Rabaul Queen that claimed around 200 lives in February 2012. As a result, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill put the police minister and police commissioner on notice to take action on the Commission of Inquiry into the sinking.

“For the media here in PNG we’ve always had the practice over the years to break stories, but we don’t actually do follow-ups,” Mr Rheeney said.

“The special report concept gives us an opportunity to go back on those big issues which we highlighted a couple of months or years ago, bring it back into the spotlight and hopefully compel government to act.”

Mr Nangoi has been with the Post-Courier for more than 25 years and has watched it go from being the “voice of the people” during independence to the political watchdog today.

“I’ve seen quite a huge change in how the paper has matured in its relationship with the government, the business community and the general people of PNG,” Mr Nangoi said.

“The Post-Courier is part of PNG.”

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