WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The government of the Solomon Islands has taken tighter control over the nation's state-owned broadcaster — a move that opponents say is squarely aimed at controlling and censoring the news.
The government said Friday that the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, known as SIBC, would retain editorial control and that government officials would not censor or restrain the outlet.
But earlier this week, the government had lashed out at the broacaster, accusing it of a “lack of ethics and professionalism” and saying the government has a duty to “protect our people from lies and misinformation" it said was propagated by the SIBC.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Johnson Honimae, the SIBC chief executive, said he was proud of the broadcaster's award-winning journalism.
He said it was business as usual for the broadcaster and there were no government censors vetting stories before they were broadcast, contrary to what was reported by some news outlets.
The government's move came at a politically tumultuous time in the Solomon Islands.
There were riots in the capital of Honiara last November, followed by a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in December, which he survived. Then in April, Sogavare signed a security pact with China that has caused deep alarm in the Pacific and around the world.
The SIBC has reported those developments and has included the views of Sogavare's opponents.
The broadcaster, which began as the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service, has been a fixture for 70 years in the Solomon Islands.
Employing about 50 people and operating under the slogan “Voice of the nation," the broadcaster is the main source of radio and television news for the nation's 700,000 people and is listened to and watched from the capital to the smallest village.
In late June, the government moved to delist the SIBC as a state-owned enterprise and take more direct control, saying the broadcaster had failed to make a profit, something which has been expected of such state-owned businesses.
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale said Wednesday the delisting was a scheme orchestrated by Sogavare as “a clear attempt to directly control and censor the news content of SIBC.”
“This will hijack well-entrenched principles of law on defamation and freedom-of-speech, thus depriving the public using SIBC to freely express their views, or accessing information on government activities,” Wale said.
Honimae told the AP that the broadcaster took critical calls from Sogavare's office in recent months.
“They believe we've been running too many stories from the opposition side, causing too much disunity,” Honimae said.
Honimae said the broadcaster and its staff won several journalism awards this year from the Media Association of Solomon Islands, including newsroom of the year and journalist of the year.
He also said the broadcaster plays the national anthem when broadcasts begin each morning at 6 a.m. and again when they finish at 11 p.m.
“We believe we are a great force for unity and peace in this country,” Honimae said.
Honimae added that the broadcaster needed to “balance our stories more” and leave no opportunity for criticism.
He said Sogavare — who is also the government's broadcasting minister — had said in Parliament that the government wouldn't tamper with the broadcaster's editorial independence.
“There is no censorship at the moment,” Honimae said. “We operate as professional journalists.”