Asking hard questions also means knowing what informationto trust and having faith journalists will also be respected.
While Solomon Islands has been in the international media due to security threats and agreements in the last few years, the relations between local media and national security is rarely probed. Yet, the role of the media in national security needs to be better understood and built upon to prevent and reduce conflict.
National security in Solomon Islands context is complex, with several interlinked threats. For instance, the National Security Strategy has five critical pillars; sovereignty, government, economy, people and society, environment (including climate change).
While geopolitical conflicts have consequences locally, more Solomon Islanders are at risk of climate change, violence against women and girls, cybercrime, other crime (e.g. stealing and sabotage) and negative consequences from unwanted and exploitative extractive industries (such as logging and mining).
For journalists, reporting on these issues requires general understanding of a range of topics, and knowing where to go to get verifiable information, a task that is harder in situations where rumours of conflict circulate and government agencies do not engage with the media. For instance, a recent email from an anonymous source sent to all media in May claimed that ex militants were planning a series of attacks on infrastructure with support from representatives of the US government. Where do you start to verify what is fact, what is rumour, and different interests involved?
At a recent workshop held by the Media Association of Solomon Islands (MASI) and Australia Pacific Security College, involving 20 journalists, the media discussed with themselves and relevant agencies the challenges they face. One of these difficulties is asking hard questions of powerful people about governance, corruption, policing and the economy when you may not have confidence in national institutions or the players in a story to respect the role of the media. As one journalist said in a recent MASI survey: “How do we ask challenging questions without losing our job?” And as another journalist raised in the workshop: “If we report police misconduct, how can we be safe ourselves?”
Solomon Islands has media freedom, but the pressure on news journalists can be heavy, particularly from politicians, police and powerful civil servants, and also from political groups. Some journalists reporting on corruption and misconduct are ridiculed and subject to hateful online posts, while others have more direct threats like people showing up to the office to shout at them about being “pro” or “anti” a particular issue, including “pro-China” or “pro-US”.
Another issue is the limited capacity of the media generally, with journalists focused on daily news, rather than time for a series of stories or more investigative reporting. A newsroom will typically have more invitations to press conferences than journalist time to attend them all, and budgets are restricted for reporting from the provinces, too. Most media outlets are still feeling the effects of the Covid-19 economic downturn, with people reluctant to invest in advertising. There are also ongoing challenges in raising revenue from news content online, and of reaching Solomon audiences when most people receive news via word of mouth rather than media or social media. Investment by international networks such as Australian Broadcasting Corporation in journalists employed locally helps the profession, but local media outlets rarely receive support from the industry overseas. A recent exception is Indepth Solomons which had some start-up funding from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Journalism can assist national security by providing a free flow of information from several sources, therefore reducing misinformation, and allowing members of the public to make more informed decisions. Of course, the media can also spread misinformation as well and need to be held accountable to their readers for the information they provide.
Government agencies, and the donors that provide them funding, should consider the relationship between Solomon media and national security. This includes making sure Solomons and foreign officials engage with, rather than ignore or threaten, journalists, and that good reporting is rewarded with respect.
The MASI/APSC workshop was one example of how direct engagement between officials and journalists sets the stage for more constructive working relationships and factually based reporting. Whether Solomon Islands can continue to demonstrate media freedom and engagement of the government with media, will also determine how secure the country is in the near future.