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By Peter Barter, GCL. OBE. Kt – Oct 10, 2014

jt_barter_narrowweb__300x428,0Democratic good governance depends on public debate – debate which is based on fact, honestly and openly held views, and willingness to engage with participants who hold quite different positions. The Internet provides fresh – and exciting – opportunities for just such debates on important public issues. Unfortunately, however, it often falls short as some participants make ill-founded claims, or simply resort to labelling those with whom they happen to disagree. In complex and contested environments, such as those experienced at times in some parts of Papua New Guinea, such conduct has the potential to publicize mere assertions, even untruths, or, particularly when labelling is involved, personal abuse. In doing so, it may add or give rise to tensions on the ground.

As Minister for Bougainville Affairs, the challenges I faced included working to build trust not only in government but between ex-combatants on different sides of the previous conflict, and within and between communities around Bougainville. Similar challenges arose when the 2002 elections in Southern Highlands failed. My responsibilities included rebuilding the trust which is basic to peace, democracy and good governance on the ground.

Anyone who values the free exchanges which are vital to democracy must, surely, appreciate the opportunities that blogs and other sites on the Internet provide. However, the ways in which some participants make unfounded assertions or simply ‘slag off’ at those with whom they disagree must, surely, be cause for concern. In doing so, they do not contribute to informed debate or help build the trust and mutual confidence in government and the wider community which are basic to public order and development. In this regard, contributors to social media would be well advised to bear in the wider – social – context in which they are expressing themselves, and that the role of media is to transmit what they say to a much wider audience which may not be aware of the immediate issues or context in which they are expressing themselves, or have ready access to other sources of information and opinion. In short, freedom of expression should be accompanied by an appropriate sense of responsibility.

Having been privileged to serve as the Minister with primary responsibility for the Bougainville Affairs for eight years, I continue to maintain a keen interest in the progress that is being made in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. In doing so, I remain in personal contact with the President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, Hon. Dr John Momis and other Bougainvillean leaders, as well as students at the Divine Word University (where I have the honour of being a Council Member).

Without wishing to dwell on the past, I would like to make it clear that the negotiations which produced and then gave legal effect to the Bougainville Peace Agreement by amending the National Constitution and enacting the Organic Law on Peace-Building in Bougainville involved Bougainvillean leaders on all sides of the previous conflict, support by the United Nations, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, and, most importantly, the active participation of the churches, individuals like the late Theodore Miriung, as well as women and men around Bougainville. These efforts led to the making of the Bougainville Constitution, the formation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), and, now, the work under way to bring about restoration and development on the ground, the transfer of functions and powers to the ABG, and preparations for the guaranteed referendum on Bougainville’s political future (due to be held, when good governance and weapons disposal have been achieved, between 2015 and 2020).

As Minister for Bougainville Affairs, I saw my immediate task to help make and build peace on the ground, and secure the resources required to provide essential services to the people. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the European Union, and other aid donors provided generous support.

Aware of the sensitivities among local communities, in particular, I did not encourage discussion about the future of mining at Panguna. However, I did make public my view that, in order to be truly autonomous, or become independent following the referendum, Bougainville would need to have an economy and become less reliant on donor aid. This is clearly a prime concern of the ABG and the people of Bougainville. They want Bougainville to be autonomous, and, in the event the people vote for independence and the National Parliament agrees, they do not want to be beggars.
Throughout my time as Minister, I had to deal with the sensitivities of the various factions, and endeavour to establish an environment in which the peace process could keep moving ahead – as it has, in fact, done. Though there may be people who disagree, I am confident that significant progress has been made, and that this will continue if we can harness the resources we have available now and in the future.

In addition to my responsibilities as Minister for Bougainville Affairs, I had to deal with the failed elections in the Southern Highlands and, ultimately, the establishment of the Hela and Jiwaka Provinces. I used many of the same processes learnt in Bougainville to help bring back some semblance of law and order and ensure an environment in which elections could take place. An important lesson I learnt is that you cannot wave a magic wand to bring about peace; peace can only occur if everyone wants peace; peace begins in the hearts of those who want peace!

Many of us appreciate the freedom and diversity of the views expressed in social media concerning Bougainville and other important issues and parts of Papua New Guinea. However, in doing so, we cannot help but be concerned at the ways in which some participants behave and express themselves as if they have licence to say whatever they choose, however sarcastically and disrespectfully they seek to express themselves and even to impose their views.
Errors of fact, exaggerations, deliberate untruths and the application of unwarranted and unwelcome labels to other individuals, groups or organizations may cause offence, even hurt, to those who are targeted, including people who are innocent or, perhaps, unaware of the allegations being made or slurs being cast.

Truly democratic debate is a matter of honesty, openness and trust in the integrity of other participants and the process as a whole.

It is accordingly important that participants in blogs and other social media recognize the importance of these values, the role they are playing, and the need to behave in ways which are consistent with – and so help to reinforce – the very democratic values on which they rely.

Like every other country, Papua New Guinea cannot claim to be perfect. Amid our diversity, we have impressive – including some quite unique – national strengths. We also have important national challenges to address and overcome. While criticism can be vital to informed national debate in a democracy, ridicule and abuse are not; they frequently represent an abuse of free speech that would be condemned elsewhere, including the countries from which some of it originates.

Papua New Guinea needs improvements in health, education, employment and other opportunities for youth, which would help to reduce temptations to crime and reduce our reliance on foreign aid.
A more self-reliant society and economy are important keys to a sustainable future.
While it is not the only way forward, these are precisely the issues being addressed and the reasons why mining is receiving increasing attention in Bougainville.

It is vital both to democratic good governance and to Bougainville’s future that participants in the discussions in Bougainville are not labelled in derogatory ways, or subjected to abuse or ill-founded accusations. Like participants in other democratic debates, they are entitled to be treated with honesty and respect. While they have the right to freedom of speech, contributors to social media should recognize the responsibilities that participation in the social and media aspects of their activities entail.

Papua New Guinea is an independent country. We have come a long way. Anyone who knows or cares for Papua New Guinea can only be impressed with the development that has taken place, while recognizing that much still needs to be done.

My comments concerning social media are not directed against any specific person(s) or organization(s). My aim is simply to ensure that Papua New Guinea keeps moving ahead – towards what I believe are shared national objectives of more equitable distribution of wealth, more employment, and sustainable self-reliance based on agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and a responsible approach towards mining and resource development that will bring about improved services to the people of Papua New Guinea.

I, therefore, call on users of social media, both in-country and overseas, to adopt – and on their audiences to encourage – and promote a positive, respectful and optimistic approach when discussing issues in and affecting Papua New Guinea.
The word ‘optimism’ comes from the Latin word ‘optimus’, meaning “best”. An optimistic approach is one which leads one to look for the best in any situation, whether or not it is really welcome. While self-awareness and self-criticism are important, slagging off at our country or particular national actors is unlikely to lead to positive outcomes. The key to a successful future is mutual and self-respect, and an optimistic approach towards the opportunities and challenges we face.

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