Honiara denies wanting to control Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, while moving to replace its board

The Solomon Islands government is moving to sack and replace the board of the national broadcaster, but has dismissed claims it is going to take control of its editorial policies.

Key points:

  • The Solomon Islands government is able to make board appointments directly, after removing national broadcaster as a state-owned enterprise
  • Critics say the government is moving to control the public broadcaster's editorial policies 
  • SIBC's chief executive and the Solomon Islands government deny censorship claims 

Concerns have been mounting over the fate of the independence of Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) since it became a fully government-funded entity. 

Last month, the government removed the public broadcaster as a state-owned enterprise (SOE), saying its reporting was causing disunity in the country.

The change has paved the way for tightening government control over SIBC's content. 

However, Albert Kabui — the special secretary to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare — insisted that the broadcaster would remain independent.

He said that, by removing the broadcaster as an state-owned enterprise, the government would now be able to make board appointments directly, rather than putting them out to tender. 

"We would get to appoint the board members and they can talk to the management level, in line with the broadcasting policy," Mr Kabui told the ABC's Pacific Beat program. 

When pressed on whether this would allow the government to sway editorial decisions through the board, Mr Kabui denied that would happen.

However, he confirmed the government was already seeking advice from the Attorney-General on how to replace the SIBC board.

"Now that they have been removed as an SOE, the legal status of the appointment is in question," he said. 

"So, that is the advice we would need to get from the Attorney-General and then we'll move on from there."

SIBC chief denies self-censorship 

Last week, SIBC staff confirmed to the ABC that the acting chairman of the board, William Parairato, recently met with them to outline new editorial orders from the Prime Minister's office.

These included vetting news and talkback shows to ensure they did not create disunity.

The reports from staff came amid criticism from the government, accusing the broadcaster of a "lack of ethics and professionalism".

According to the government, the reports said, the broadcaster had a responsibility to "protect our people from lies and misinformation, especially when it is propagated by the national broadcaster".

However, SIBC chief executive Johnson Honimae denied the broadcaster had been ordered to self-censor, insisting the final say on what was put to air remained in the hands of its editors.   

While the government was entitled to replace the board, he said he was not concerned. 

"I have operated under those circumstances before, so it's not a concern at the moment," Mr Honimae said. 

"But when we get to that, then we will see what will happen."

SIBC has been operating for 70 years, with its news and programming reaching people in the most-remote areas of the country. 

For many, it is their only immediate source of news. 

Mr Honimae confirmed the broadcaster would continue to run interviews with the opposition but, after hearing from the Prime Minister, they would aim to strike more balance in their reporting.

"What I've told my staff is, 'Let's work as we've been working and do it even better, and let's leave no room for any criticism on the credibility of SIBC'," he said. 

Critics not convinced

Despite the assurances from the SIBC and government, critics remain alarmed by what they see as the erosion of democratic freedoms in Solomon Islands.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) last week called the changes an assault on press freedom and called for the SIBC to be reinstated as a state-owned enterprise.

Opposition leader Matthew Wale said that, as the only source of news for many islands in the Solomons, the SIBC had significant influence in the country.

"I am very, very concerned that the Prime Minister has made this step, that basically reduces the national broadcaster to a propaganda tool for the government," Mr Wale said. 

"[It's] propagating its political interests as opposed to the national interest of having healthy political discourse and people benefiting from a diversity of views and opinions." 

Mr Wale said that Mr Sogavare should also come clean about what reporting he has taken issue with.

"I raised this question in Parliament and he held a red folder — everything seems to be in red these days," he said. 

"He held a red folder with I don't know what was in it. 

"He said it contained evidence of bias and insightful material."

Mr Kabui, Mr Sogavare's special secretary, said the findings were the results of a three-month analysis conducted last year of the SIBC's reporting, and he wasn't sure if he could publicly release it.

Local media have been vocal about the government's increased criticism and secrecy towards the press, which has come at a politically tumultuous time for the Solomon Islands.

The capital, Honiara, was shaken by violent riots in November, which saw buildings — including a police station and a leaf hut next to Parliament House — set on fire.

This was followed by a no-confidence vote in Mr Sogavare, which he survived.

Journalists have complained that the Prime Minister's office has become increasingly opaque since Solomon Islands signed a controversial security pact with China.

When China's Foreign Minister toured the country in May, Solomon Islands media boycotted a press conference because they were collectively only allowed to ask one question, and only to their own Foreign Minister.

They also struggled to get information about the timing of the visit and agreements being signed between the two countries.


Story first published on ABC News

Link to original story

Pacific Beat By Mackenzie Smith and Annika Burgess, ABC News