Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
“But it’s happening much faster than I expected. Young people around the country – the network is growing.”
— Martyn Namorong, The Namorong Report
The “Twitter” drums started beating…
ABOUT 1pm on Thursday, the “Twitter” drums started beating out news of the latest disaster to befall Papua New Guinea – reports that the passengerferry MV Rabaul Queen had sunk early that morning in wild seas en route from the island of West New Britain to the mainland port of Lae.
On board were an estimated 372 passengers, though the total remains highly uncertain – many of them students and teachers traveling to the mainland to begin the new school year. (By yesterday afternoon, 246 of them had been rescued. Hopes were fading for the remaining 100-plus.)
In the hours after the first alert, mobile phones, Facebook, newsgroups and blogs exploded with updates, questions, prayers and desperate inquiries. The conversation swept up families from all over the vast country looking for news of their loved ones, journalists within and outside the country, political stirrers, credentialed commentators and garden-variety village people venting their distress, sharing information and demanding answers from authorities.
Why had the ferry been allowed to sail in such appalling conditions? Was it seaworthy? Where was the passenger manifest? Was the vessel overloaded?
An hour or so later, another news story broke. The ferry tragedy brought more tears for a nation still coming to grips with last week’s landslide in the Southern Highlands that had claimed at least 25 lives, and a plane crash in Madang in October, which killed 28 passengers.
But it was not enough to cause jousting political elites in the capital of Waigani, Port Moresby, to miss a beat in their cut-throat maneuvering.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced the suspension of the PNG Chief Justice pending an investigation into allegations of financial misconduct.
This was the same Chief Justice whom O’Neill had tried to remove back in November, just before he presided over a Supreme Court judgment in December that found the process that had removed former prime minister Sir Michael Somare from office – clearing the way for O’Neill’s ascent – was illegal. The judgment has inspired eight weeks of political street fighting, which last week provoked a short-lived military mutiny.
The politicians’ blinkered preoccupation with their own agendas quickly provoked outrage. “Here we go again … when will it all end?” asked one exasperated citizen of PNG’s frenetic Facebook commentariat. Others were less philosophical. “People Power! Get rid of the whole lot!!!”
“OMG the Chief Justice was suspended!! WTF!! Landslides! Mutiny! Boat disaster! and now CJ suspension”
tweeted Martyn Namarong – sometime blogger; sometime thoughtful, award-winning essayist; some-time “buai” (beetlenut) street vendor; one-time medical student and now full-time clarion for the nation’s restive youth.
As it has in the rest of the world, social media and the sudden explosion of mobile phone technology is bringing about profound changes in PNG culture, and its impact on politics is only beginning to be explored and understood.
According to Namarong, the arrival of cheap handsets and the penetration of mobile networks into the rural and remote communities, which are home to the majority of the nation’s almost 7 million citizens, was critical to the political developments that allowed O’Neill to gain and cling to power despite the Supreme Court finding his government was formed in violation of the constitution.
Asked whether social media has the potential to bring about a revolution in PNG in the same way that it underwrote the Arab Spring, he argues that a “Melanesian Spring”-style uprising won’t happen because the fundamental social dynamics are very different.
The price of bread, he says, is not an issue for the people of PNG, though it galvanized the Middle East. PNG is still largely a population of farmers, fishers and hunters who are accustomed to taking care of themselves and not relying on the state or the markets for survival.
“We are independent people still not integrated with the globalist network.”
Nonetheless, and with a general election looming in four months, social media has the potential to usher in seismic political change –
“in a sense, it has already happened with the Parliamentary coup,”
“I don’t think that would have been sustained without the politicians on the O’Neill side knowing that they have support from around the country.”
The failure of the Somare government to deliver desperately needed basic services, and wide-spread concerns about corruption, had seen a festering of anti-Somare sentiment, which the O’Neill camp exploited when the position of prime minister was declared vacant while the Grand Chief was undergoing extended medical treatment in Singapore.
“Essentially what the Parliament did was illegal. But O’Neill knows he has the support of the vast majority of Papua New Guineans, including folks like me.”
The drums of new media feed that confidence, and perhaps influence the police, military and public service chiefs whose loyalty allows O’Neill to maintain his grip on power.
To get a sense of how profoundly, and how rapidly, the information age is changing life in PNG from the ground up, just take a look at information transformation Martyn Namarong has witnessed in his 26 years.
He grew up in a small logging camp, population about 500, deep in the forests of Western Province – one of the least populated parts of the country. Even today, to visit home requires more than a week of walking and canoe travel from the nearest air and sea port at Daru, the province’s capital. The only information that came into the village when he was a boy was via the radio and the gossip visitors brought in. As in so much of PNG, there was no landline telephone, so mobiles didn’t represent a mere upgrade in communications technology. Many communities relied – and still use – drums and whistles to communicate across hard-to-travel terrain.
But since 2007, when Digicel arrived in the market in competition to the BeMobile network, take-up of mobile phones and, increasingly, of data-cards that enable internet access, has taken off. Digicel now says it now has 4.4 million Papua New Guineans. Many would also have BeMobile SIM cards, swapping to get access to the best network for their locations.
“Customers no longer just want a phone that can call and text, but the first question they ask is: ‘Can I get on to Facebook?’,”
says Lorna McPherson, Digicel PNG’s operations director. The company has launched a low-cost Facebook phone, which is in great demand.
The result? An increasingly plugged-in and information-hungry nation.
The Namarong Report
Last year the founder of the popular Masalai blog, communications expert Emmanuel Narokob, told the Lowy Institute that his site had gone from 20,000 PNG users to more than 54,000 over a seven-month period.
Martyn Namarong got 5000 hits on the day of the Madang plane crash, when he was in Madang and found himself filling the information void as a defacto journalist, transmitting incoming reports through his blog.
On regular days he gets about 1000 hits on his blog, he says, together with constant traffic on his Facebook site and through his phone. His blog is The Namarong Report. In character it largely reflects his leftist perspective, but his philosophy is to also urge young people to be entrepreneurial and to create their own jobs and opportunities – never to rely on the state.
Most of the people contacting him are young people – many still at high school – who want to ask him about politics, life and, most often, their prospects for finding work.
It was an essay Namarong wrote contemplating issues of national identity and expressing his frustration at the lack of opportunity facing young people in PNG that won him the Crocodile Prize, a national literary award, and rapid notoriety and traffic in the blogosphere.
“When I figured it out – what young people were going through, what I was going through – I thought: ‘Wait a minute, I might as well write about this stuff’.
“I could go and express my frustrations the way 99.9 per cent of young Papua New Guineans do – with alcohol and car-jackings and so-called rascals and pickpocketing and risky sex. It is essentially about frustration – people don’t see what is going to happen to them in the next two years, five years, and they say whatever. So they say: ‘Let’s just live recklessly’.
“In a way, my blog is a bit reckless. Most people wouldn’t write some of the stuff I put out – upsetting powerful people.
“And in a way, it turned people’s eyes to the undercurrent of society in PNG and the challenges young people face.”
His initial thinking was that maybe the political and social discussion being provoked by the cartel of emerging young bloggers would, maybe in a generation – say 20 years down the track – transform the cultural landscape and allow a more mature, more diverse, more informed and healthier political dialogue.
“But it’s happening much faster than I expected. Young people around the country – not just in Port Moresby, but in Lae and Madang and Rabaul and Goroka – the network is growing.”
Australian National University’s Dr Bill Standish, a veteran PNG political and social observer, agrees that new media is rapidly infiltrating and changing the long-impenetrable PNG landscape – but not always positively.
“Contemporary blogs etc can be significant in promoting political discussion – some profound, some ratbaggery, some even potentially dangerous.”
Mobile phones and social media can also quickly turn a minor disturbance into an urban riot, as was shown during “anti-Asia” riots in April-May 2009.
Research by Dr Amanda Watson at the Queensland University of Technology has identified other negatives among a generally positive outlook for the impact of mobile phones on remote communities – principally the cost impacts on impoverished populations, and concerns that the technology is enlisted by raskols to commit crime.
It is also said to have impacted on marriages, causing distrust and facilitating liaisons.
Despite that – and notwithstanding that blogs may be, as Standish says, “intellectual’s playground, accessible only to those with good internet connections” – they are, he adds “surely helping nation-building”.
Maybe part of PNG’s enthusiastic uptake of social media and mobile phones rests on how neatly it dovetails with long-established cultural systems of sharing information.
In a sense the technology has been rapidly enlisted to facilitate longstanding practices of disseminating information and rumour across kinship networks.
“Remember that the old ‘coconut wireless’ was also fast in spreading rumours across the cities and mountains of PNG, long before mobile phones, aided by people’s mindsets often expecting the worst and the ‘Chinese whispers’ process,”