“The Asia-Pacific is a gold mine of cracking stories that aren’t covered,” said the ABC’s Pacific affairs reporter, Liam Fox. He said the region was full of colourful stories like ‘bride prices’ in PNG as well as critical issues such as the impact of climate change on villagers.
Brisbane-based correspondent for SBS News and Current Affairs Stefan Armbruster agreed that more coverage was needed to inform both the local communities and Australians.
“It is our neighbourhood,” he told this year’s New News conference. “We can’t just cherry pick certain issues or matter of interests, and total ignorance in health and humanitarian crises can be damaging.
“A lot of people don’t realise how close we are – in Queensland, you can stand on the island of Saibai and you’re four kilometres from [Papua New Guinea]. You can look out across the water and see the smoke rising up from the villagers’ homes.
“We had a tuberculosis epidemic on our doorstep, but there was just total ignorance — no one seemed interested in the story.”
But ABC reporter Fox said he thought the issues were more complex.
“I wonder whether it is a question of people not caring, or is it because the media don’t cover it?”
“A lot of people don’t realise how close we are – in Queensland, you can stand on the island of Saibai and you’re four kilometres from [Papua New Guinea]. You can look out across the water and see the smoke rising up from the villagers’ homes.” — Stefan Armbruster, SBS News
Writer and journalist Jo Chandler, who has written extensively on the Asia-Pacific, including PNG, agreed and said when people did hear about injustices in the region they were genuinely surprised and concerned.
“Wendy Harmer, who is well read and interested in issues of social justice, came back to me and wrote how appalled she was that she had been unaware of some of the injustices going on.”
According to the 2016 World Freedom Index, press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region dropped 13.6 per cent over the past three years. Reporters Without Borders said a “growing aversion to debate and pluralism” in many Asia-Pacific countries had led to government clampdowns on the media.
Journalist Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, who now works for World Vision Australia, said the Australian government treated the Asia-Pacific region like its Indigenous population.
“There’s been an attitude of ‘let’s throw some money at them and hope they don’t make too much noise’.”
O’Callaghan said Australian correspondents had an obligation to expose issues that their local colleagues could be inhibited from covering due to government restrictions.
Chandler said it was important both the Australian government and international corporations were held accountable for their actions in the region.
“People need to know that foreign aid budgets are appropriately spent. Companies – and their shareholders — need to know how their projects are impacting local communities,” she said.
The panel agreed that budget cuts in newsrooms had diminished coverage of overseas regions.
Chandler said this had led to a trend of “fly in and fly out” reporting in the region that had repercussions for local communities.
“Journalism in Asia-Pacific is not something that you can do from a distance. But [it] must be supported by the editors and policy makers in the news agencies.” — Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, World Vision
“The physical and emotional damage of not understanding the culture and tradition of certain communities can backfire,” she said. “Yes, you might get the story, you might get the feature, but you leave a hell of a mess.”
SBS reporter Armbruster said the cost of reporting in the region was relatively cheap.
“I can sleep on people’s floors and hire a cheap car – it cost more for me to cover the [National Rugby League] because the flight to Townsville to see the Cowboys cost $1500.”
O’Callaghan agreed that there were a lot of opportunities for local and international non-government organisations to fund journalists to cover stories in remote locations.
“Journalism in Asia-Pacific is not something that you can do from a distance,” she said. “But [it] must be supported by the editors and policy makers in the news agencies.”
Fox said he was optimistic about the potential of social media to provide a platform for citizen journalism in the region.
“That’s the future,” he said. “Citizen journalists are now everywhere. It is a great transformation for the news industry and the future of news reporting.”