Censorship fears as Solomon Islands government tightens control over state broadcaster

The Solomon Islands government has tightened control of the country’s public broadcaster – a move that opponents say is aimed squarely at controlling and censoring news.
The government this week accused the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) of “lack of ethics and professionalism” and said it was its duty to “protect our people from lies and misinformation, especially when these same lies and disinformation are propagated by the broadcaster”.

But in a Thursday interview with The Associated Press, SIBC chief executive Johnson Honimae said he was proud of the broadcaster’s award-winning journalism.

I said it was business as usual and there were no government censors checking the stories before they were released, contrary to some media reports.
The criticism of the government comes at a politically tumultuous time in the Solomon Islands.
There were riots in the capital Honiara last November, followed by a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in December, which he survived.
Then in April, Sogavare signed a security pact with China that caused deep concern in the Pacific and around the world.

The SIBC reported on these developments and included the views of Sogavare’s opponents.

The broadcaster, which began as the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service, has been a fixture for 70 years.
Employing around 50 people and operating under the slogan “voice of the nation”, the broadcaster remains the main source of radio and television information for the 700,000 inhabitants of the islands and is listened to and watched from the capital to the smallest village.
At the end of June, the government decided to remove the SIBC from the list of public companies and take more direct control, saying that it had not made a profit.
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale said on Wednesday the delisting was a ploy orchestrated by Sogavare as “a clear attempt to directly control and censor SIBC’s news content”.

“It will circumvent entrenched legal principles of defamation and free speech, thereby depriving the public of the ability to use the SIBC to freely express their opinions or access information about government activities,” Mr. Wale.

Mr. Honimae said the broadcaster had received calls from Mr. Sogavare’s office in recent months.
“They think we have aired too many stories from the opposition side, causing too much disunity,” Mr Honimae said.
According to Honimae, the broadcaster and its staff recently won several journalism awards, including Newsroom of the Year and Journalist of the Year.

“We believe we are a great force for unity and peace in this country,” he said.

He said the broadcaster needed to ‘balance our stories more’ and leave no room for criticism, pointing out that Mr Sogavare – who is also broadcasting minister – had told parliament the government would not touch on editorial independence of the broadcaster.
“There is no censorship at the moment,” Mr. Honimae said.

“We operate like professional journalists.”