The importance of Pacific news on Facebook was thrown into sharp relief by the stand-off in January between the Australian government and Facebook over the government’s media code.
Facebook closed access to Pacific and Australian news and stopped users from sharing Pacific and Australian news. For a time, Australians were unable to access any news, including news from weather bureau, hospitals, emergency services, charities and schools.
The code, which Facebook and Google earlier said was “unworkable”, has established a framework which will see the tech giants to enter a binding arbitration process with Australian media outlets, so they can be paid for use of their news content.
After a week-long stand-off, Facebook backed down, restoring news pages and the ability of users to repost news. Facebook’s vice president of public affairs, Nick Clegg, conceded the company had “erred on the side of over-enforcement”.
As part of the backdown, Australian Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, agreed to take into account whether Facebook has already struck commercial agreements with news publishers before enforcing the code.
The founder of The Pacific Newsroom Facebook channel, Sue Ahearn, told Pacific Business that the compromise struck by the Australian government and Facebook looks like a win for traditional big media at the expense of newer, innovative outlets.
She says it’s too early to tell if the latest deal will have an impact on The Pacific Newsroom.
The site is an aggregation of the best news in the world about the Pacific - from newspapers, national broadcasters like the SIBC, Radio NZ Pacific, and NBC, Pacific bloggers, and development sites including DevPolicy and Lowy. *
“The Pacific Newsroom has become the town square of the Pacific where people can share stories,” says Ahearn.
“Our audience is just over 20,000 and there’s a steady number of new members every day.
On the first day of Facebook’s ban, the audience responded in their hundreds from the region and across the world, Fijians in South Sudan and Afghanistan, seasonal workers in Australia and Tongans in Utah, ‘all hungry for news’.
Amanda Watson, an expert on digital technology in the Pacific at the Australian National University, says that for many Pacific Islanders, Facebook is the internet.
“Those who have worked out how to use Facebook may not know how to go to a website or use a search engine.”
She told The Diplomat that one of the major issues is that Pacific telecom companies offer Facebook as a cheaper data pack.
“For example, Our Telekom in Solomon Islands sells Facebook data cheaper than other data. In Papua New Guinea, Digicel has a 3-day data option for PGK10 that includes 300MB of data for general use plus 700MB for Facebook. Similarly, a 7-day option is PGK20 for 600MB plus 2000MB (2GB) of Facebook data.
There are varied figures for the percentage of population on Facebook. It’s highest In French Polynesia 59%, Tonga 49%, and Cook Islands 49% and lowest in PNG 7%, Kiribati 25% and Solomon Islands 11%.
“I started the Pacific Newsroom three years ago and Auckland-based Michael Field and I work as volunteers,” said Ahern.
“We share a commitment to public interest journalism. I could see technology was changing the speed of communication rapidly in the region and there was a void left by the ABC where I’d worked for 25 years. A senior executive told me there was no one in the Pacific and the audience was in India and China. I hope I’ve proved him wrong.”
“In the absence of accurate, trusted and timely information, rumour, speculation and innuendo fill the vacuum. I’ve seen this so many times in the Pacific,” says Ahearn.
*Islands Business articles also appear on The Pacific Newsroom
Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan has been awarded the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific journalism for 2020.
Established by the Walkley Foundation, the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism aims to encourage more and better journalism about the Pacific Islands region by Australian media professionals and news outlets.
Making the announcement this week, the Foundation said judges were so impressed with the quality of the applications this year that they decided to award grants of $10,000 each to two deserving recipients, Maclellan and Jo Chander.
Maclellan will use the grant to report on "France and Pacific self-determination during the COVID crisis"
The judges were excited by Nic Maclellan's proposal to examine the dynamic relationships between Australia, France and the Pacific in the context of anxiety about growing Chinese influence. His proposal to focus on the perspectives of the Kanak and Maohi peoples – including strong independence movements – in an environment where Australia is increasingly working in partnership with France raises a fascinating set of issues which will play out as New Caledonia heads towards another self-determination referendum and the region recovers from Covid-19.
“Nic is a tremendously experienced and insightful journalist, and Islands Business is very proud to regularly feature his reports and analysis of our region's key political issues. The decision to award him the grant is well-deserved, and a testament to the quality of his reporting, and the experience he brings to his subject matter,” said Islands Business Managing Editor, Samantha Magick.
The applications were judged by Sean Dorney, Former Pacific Correspondent, ABC, Sue Ahearn, Journalist and Consultant, Michael Bachelard, Walkley Judging Board and Investigations Editor, The Age, Jemima Garrett, Freelance Journalist specialising in the Pacific and Alexander Rheeney, Co Editor, Samoa Observer.
Click through to read some of Nic's most recent stories:
French Prosecutor pursues Temaru (June 2020)
FLNKS demands strict border controls (May 2020)
Pathway across the Pacific (April 2020)
Gaining credits for Kyoto (March 2020)
Throwing coal on the fire (Jan 2020)
What has precipitated the quick and quiet departure of the Chief Executive of USP’s Pacific Technical and Further Education CEO, Dr. Hasmukh Lal? The Marshall Islands SOV soldiers on, Micronesia represents at the Pacific Islands Forum, and a Fiji resort is in court.