PFF Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS--Independent journalism and jobs for journalists in Palau face the axe if a proposed telecommunications bill before the country's senate becomes law, says regional media monitoring network the Pacific Freedom Forum.Senate bill 8-231 is aimed at updating licensing regulations for broadcasters, but includes a clause banning foreign ownership of media companies.
The clause would effectively shut down major news player Oceania Television Network, which is majority owned by US citizens Jeff Barabe and Kassi Berg, in partnership with Palauan partners, Jill Senior and Micheal Gordon. OTN employs Palauan nationals across its news, production and admin teams.
"Any proposed legislation which takes jobs away from Palau's citizens, and impacts on the independent flow of news and information to the public, surely raises the question of the agenda behind the changes," says PFF chair Titi Gabi of Papua New Guinea.
"We urge those behind the bill's clauses to check it does not threaten Palau's constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and speech."
"Forward-thinking Pacific governments feature foreign investment and ownership guidelines and monitoring in their trade and investment environment and don't mix it up in spectrum and telecommunications licensing. In a globalised era where more small island media industries would welcome foreign investment to help meet their high capital costs, the truth behind making this a restricted industry must be made public," she says.
Attempts to ban foreign ownership of media outlets is not new to Palau. It's been reported the same provision was included in a previous Senate Bill introduced by broadcast owner and Senator Alfonso Diaz in 2009. It was dropped amidst legal challenges resulting in a criminal complaint filed by the Special Prosecutor against Senator Diaz for anti-competitive and unfair business practices.
PFF is also extremely concerned at news that the March 29 public hearing held in the Palau senate on the draft bill also actively excluded Barabe and his staff members from OTV. When Barabe, acting on an invite from a Senate staffer appeared at 11am, the hearing Chair Senator Kathy Kesolei called a recess, which meant cameras recording the 'public' hearings were turned off. During the off-camera discussion with Barabe, Kesolei told the OTV owner he couldn't submit because he didn't have a license. When he said he had two broadcast licenses, she changed reasons and said he could submit at a later date. When he asked for that date, she said there might not be another hearing on the bill.
"Public hearings over legislation are a precious part of any democracy and on camera recording links the business of elected leaders to their voters in the most transparent and practical way," says PFF co-chair Monica Miller of American Samoa. "Taking that right away and grasping for excuses in the manner reported,suspends belief and credibility in the whole public hearings process handling this bill."
Roll-Em Productions, the Barabe brainchild which lead to Oceania TV Network, are a thriving media company who've put a decades work into training and employing Palauan journalists.
"For an industry leader operating with the same standards as a public service broadcaster to now face extermination without clear justification, and especially without the right to be heard, is a chilling wake up call to Pacific voters of how easily their elected leaders can shut down their right to be informed."