Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 15:58 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 15:58 | SYDNEY

The Papua New Guinean protester (II)


Danielle Cave


11 April 2012 15:52

If yesterday's speech by Prime Minister O'Neill, given to up to ten thousand protesters who packed out Sir John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby, is anything to go by then protesters have achieved political change.

O'Neill was forced to address the stadium of protesters who threatened to march on parliament if the Prime Minister did not arrive to receive petitions from the trade union congress, University of PNG students and local NGOs. He agreed to repeal the controversial Judicial Conduct Act (on the condition the Chief Justice steps down) and agreed to stick to the general election timetable (although a short delay was flagged).

As the Prime Minister spoke, many in the stadium tweeted, added updates to Facebook and posted photos to discussion groups and blogs so that the protest could be followed live around the world. 

Via Karabuspalau Kaiku (on Facebook).

The confluence of PNG's desire for political change with some of the world's most efficient, accessible and widely used social media tools has been remarkable in a country where almost 9 out of 10 Papua New Guineans live in rural or remote areas, GNI per capita is only $1300 and internet penetration is a tiny 2%. 

As a comparison, Libya, a country with a similar population (6.3 million people) where the use of social media continues to be key in political movements, has a internet penetration of 5.7% and GNI per capita almost ten times that of PNG ($12,320). Libya's 473,000 active Facebook users vastly eclipses PNG's 77,780; both countries continue to record extraordinary growth in Facebook users, and over the past year the PNG total has more than doubled.

PNG has benefited from the proliferation of cheap mobile phones with good network coverage that are web and/or Facebook-enabled. In a sense, these phones have fast-tracked the country beyond fixed broadband, which in a developing country like PNG has many limitations (such as cost, access and the necessary hardware). The accessibility of mobile internet allows Papua New Guinea's Facebook users to share texts, articles, photos and video immediately while they are on the move – key ingredients for the coordination of a large public event.

PNG is our closest neighbouring country, our second largest recipient of foreign aid, our 13th largest trading partner and home to a large contingent of Australians in government, business, civil society and media. The importance of PNG's stability to Australia's national interest is impossible to dispute. What is up for debate is whether Australia is equipped with the right expertise to monitor, analyse and engage with PNG's emerging digital generation. The same generation (X & Y) that largely organised yesterday's protest will produce PNG's next crop of leaders across government, private sector and civil society. 

It is also worth thinking about how other Pacific Island (and particularly Melanesian) countries will view and interpret these events in their local media and social media discussion groups. PNG is a natural leader in the Pacific Islands and PNG's protests have potential regional ramifications.

Social media activism in PNG will continue to thrive alongside expected increased take-up of web-enabled mobile phones; what will change are the tipping points that spark and inspire people to amplify their voices and coordinate a political response. Prime Minister O'Neill now finds himself in a unique situation, facing an increasingly vocal and powerful 'digital generation' that has proven it is possible to coordinate a mass rally, predominantly using social media tools, in a few days. This has never been done before.

What is much more difficult to assess is whether future protest organisers, participants and police will be able to continue ensuring that these protests are peaceful (there were claims of violence, although separate to the main protest). If the PNG Government fails to meet its own election and constitutional commitments this will deliver PNG citizens another trigger point, and after seeing what PNG citizens are capable of organising, one should assume there will be a coordinated public response.

Holding governments accountable for their actions is an important part of democracy; the onus is now on the PNG Government to listen to its people. Meanwhile, #PNG's online discussion continues to intensify.