Media and a national identity

By Emmanuel Narokobi

Last night I had the honour of sitting in on a discussion group (organised by the Kumul Foundation) with American Philospher and Political Economist Professor Francis Fukuyama. Professor Fukuyama is here as a consultant from the World Bank to asess how the World Bank can re-engage with PNG. He is only here on a short trip (which in my view is the very reason why most internationally initiated projects are not effectively implemented in PNG, but anyway that arguement will be saved for another day).

Fukuyama is best known for his book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ where he argued, among other things, that liberal democracy was essentially the way of the future as a universal political model. He also firmly believes that a true sustainable development in any country does not come from outside influences, and for us that would mean Australian Aid, but more so from the individual citizens of that country. One of Fukuyama’s beliefs also was that for individuals to bring about a so called ‘movement’ to effect political change a sense of national identity must first be in place.

So the discussion group went on to discuss national identity and whether they felt we had a national identity and looking at how it could be ‘created’ and then ‘sustained’. Fukuyama explained that a national identity in nearly all developed and fast emerging economies was institutionalised. In that your duty to your country and the attached national pride was drummed into you at educational institutions and through the use of the media by the government.

Which brings me to the reason for this posting which was the groups discussion on the use of the media to either ‘create’ and/or ‘sustain’ our national identity, within an apparent vacumn that had evolved in the last 15 years or so.

The group stated that in many ways the media has tried to be proactive, but threats from politicians seem to have dictated how they report. It was also stated that the media is not as strong as it could be and perhaps even the education of our journalisits did not involve the teaching of skills to investigate what could be influential reporting. Another view was that maybe you couldn’t expect any nationalism from the media because The Post Courier newspaper is owned by Murdoch’s News Ltd, The National newspaper is owned by a Malaysian company, and PNG FM and EMTV are owned by FijiTV. In terms of nationally owned media organisations, what we have is the government run National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) which has been nearly dead for the last 15 odd years. You also have FM100, but that’s owned by Telikom, another government subsidiary.

Meg Taylor (a senior PNG lawyer, currently based in the U.S.), who was also at this discussion pointed out that leading up to the countrys’ independence in 1975, they had several agents in terms of media usage for preparing the country for independence, The Office of Culture, The Office of Information and of course NBC. For Meg and her generation it was an exciting and optimistic time, so the feeling of nationalism was quite strong and obviously being spurned on by the above media agents.

These office’s have disintegrated in the last 15 years. So it would appear then that one of the key ingredients (among others) in ‘creating’ and ‘sustaining’ our national identity began to falter at this point and hence crippling the opportunities for institutionlised national identity building especially through the use of the media. The key reason for these offices’ demise was clearly pointed out by Meg that the resources to sustain these media agents were simply re-directed elsewhere. NBC and Telikom are consequent resuts of these re-directed resources.
So what have we turned to?

In the obvious vacumn that resulted, some at the discussion group pointed out Religion and Sport (among others) as some ways of creating and/or sustaining that national identity. I think everyone has a friend or relative that goes to crusades where they pray for ‘the healing of the nation’ and every PNG’ean knows where they were when Ryan Pini won a Gold Medal. I guess one can say that the media also assists in spreading their messages.

The discussion group also mentioned that the internet had for sometime now been emerging as quite an effective form of media by which nationalism could be expressed. Great examples of these are and, not to mention also the numerous threads of emails that string from PC to PC when some international consultant tells us, yet again, that our country is ‘on the brink of collapse’ (I think we’ve been on that Brink for nearly over 10 years now).

Obviously the population with access to the internet is very small, but I imagine that it is this small group however that will be quite influential in leading nation building in the next 20 years, (not necessarily in politics alone but also in their various industries and careers). If the internet is therefore the conversation and a medium by which to ‘create’ and/or ‘sustain’ our national identity then it has already begun. It is unfiltered, it can be harsh and sometimes it can be plain stupid, but at least people are talking. It remains to be seen however how all that online talk will translate into offline action in the coming years.

[At some point all the talk and emails need to be met with action. The media at the end of the day is just a tool. So we will all wait until a handful from among all this talk puts their hands up to say ‘I will make an effort to change PNG’ and they will ask us, ‘will you help me?’ And we will all support them because through numerous emails, websites and blogs we have come to know that, what they want is what we want. The internet is by no means the silver bullet, but it will be one of many factors in this quest for a national identity and political change]

Read also a related article by Solomon Kantha:

7 thoughts on “Media and a national identity

  1. Cultivating National Consciousness
    By Solomon Kantha

    On Wednesday December 13, 2006, the Kumul Foundation Inc—a non-profit, non-political organization which aims to provide a voice and gathering point for young professional Papua New Guineans who care about the future of their country organized a seminar on the topic of “Nationalism and Identity in Papua New Guinea”. Two of the guest speakers were Meg Taylor—former PNG Ambassador to the United States and now Vice President of the International Financial Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group—and Professor Francis Fukuyama, an American political philosopher and political economist.

    The topic of the seminar itself renders a retrospection of our history and begs an appraisal of the concept of nationalism and its significance in PNG and whether there is a lack of it and a need for its revitalization. What is nationalism and how do Papua New Guineans view nationalism? Nationalism is a desire for national advancement or independence by people who are under foreign domination. It is also a devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation. PNG has passed the stage of the former definition and is perhaps still in the process of cultivating the latter. To understand the concept of nationalism in PNG will require an understanding of the diverse composition of the country, its history and the process of state creation.

    Nation-states throughout the world have been formed by groups of people who had a common sense of nationalism. The state in PNG however negates this attribute as it is a result of former colonial designs where the state was created prior to its citizens even having a common sense of nationalism. The effect of such a process of state creation in a diverse traditional society within a relatively short period has had a significant bearing on what the state is today and how citizens view their relationship vis-à-vis the state. Nationalism also comes with people having a common identity either it be culture, race, ethnicity or a common history of political struggle. In PNG there was no common variable or identity that encompassed these diverse traditional societies. The traditional societies in PNG have experienced thousands of years of independence and unlike other societies there was no imagined sense of a nation before the advent of European colonialism.

    In our contemporary world where the nation-state takes center stage national consciousness is crucial for its survival and progress. Nationalism forges a strong state and promotes collaborative efforts towards nation-building and development. History has shown that where there is a lack of national consciousness this has led to the collapse of nation-states. In PNG the challenge was explicitly brought to the fore by civil unrests and the desire of some to “break away” and form their own country. Prominent of which was the Bougainville crisis and recently the Papuan movement seeking Australian citizenship. These are important signals that we must pay attention to and which also bring to light the vitality of national consciousness.

    For a post-colonial state like PNG the task of building a nation is often a struggle to keep together people of diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups that were thrown together by former colonial designs. A Papua New Guinean’s allegiance is in the order of family, tribe, village, province, region and the state comes last. Most citizens identify themselves more along regional and provincial lines and the consequent effect of such an allegiance has created an ambience of insecurity that fosters the “wantok system” which significantly impacts on our politics, job selections, and public office appointments. Sadly, this ethnic allegiance is often exhibited overtly in everyday national politics thus derailing the focus towards nation-building and meaningful development.

    Nation-building involves the cultivation and maintenance of a sense of national consciousness so how can we cultivate a genuine sense of nationalism and redirect our focus towards the much delayed process of effective nation-building? First of all it will require a change in the perception of Papua New Guineans to deviate from the prevailing ethnocentric allegiances and view ourselves in the broader context as Papua New Guineans irrespective of our various ethnic origins. It is undoubtedly a difficult task given the divergent nature of our society and the different levels of allegiances but perhaps it is time we invest more in public institutions and processes that will promote and instill a sense of national consciousness in citizens.

    An important process that we should utilize is through cultural agency. Cultural agency refers to a range of creative activities that contribute to society, including pedagogy, research, activism, and the arts. Cultural agency can empower citizens through the promotion of our cultures in such areas as creative arts and music. It is something that can change society and provide a “wiggle room” for a compromise of various beliefs and cultural practices to coexist. It can be seen as a transformative agent in shaping societies by connecting through differences without denying differentials. Cultural agency will be an important tool in cultivating nationalism, tuning our consciousness towards a national perspective and shifting away from the prevalent ethnocentric mindset that inhibits progress.

    An important aspect of cultural agency is cultural industries such as radio and television. An information society helps organizes society because communication has become crucial in imaging and identifying new social models. Communication contributed significantly to the construction and development of modern nations and it has both an economic as well as a political component. Media has become the spokesmen not only for the state but also for the subaltern and communication is vital in the process of building and revitalizing identities thus instilling national consciousness. It is a kind of prosthesis which is flexible in amalgamating different elements from very different and discontinuous cultural worlds. While the arts is an important aspect of cultural agency it can also be a prosthesis in establishing what is necessary in forging cultural harmony and national consciousness.

    Ethnic and linguistic diversity present opportunities as well as challenges for the construction of a democratic citizenry. Today, individuals and even groups adopt multiple identities to survive and to empower themselves. The role of the media is paramount in this process of cultivating national consciousness. Television and radio programs should air programs that educate the people about the significance of their culture and languages which sadly are rapidly disappearing. Media must also continuously promote our national adage of “unity through diversity” and not only during occasions such as independence celebrations. Institutions that promote our culture and identity such as the National Cultural Commission, Tourism Promotion Authority and the Museum and Arts Gallery should be given more attention and funding. We could also learn from the experiences of Latin American countries that employ cultural agencies in promoting national consciousness.

    For any meaningful nation-building to take place national consciousness should first be entrenched. The government should invest more in agencies, institutions and processes that will cultivate national consciousness. More investment should be put into sports, creative arts and music as vital institutions and industries that carry our flag abroad and instill a sense of nationalistic pride in citizens. Education also forms a vital component of teaching and grooming younger generations of their national identity. In the case of public office appointments and job application processes we could also emulate countries such as the United States where personal profiles on resumes and CVs identifying one’s home province, age and marital status are discouraged as that only allows for discriminatory and biased selections. Although trivial such processes will contribute to make a huge difference in eliminating ethnic-based appointments and selections.

    May be we should also endeavor for a “Papua New Guinean Dream” to promote nationalism and building a common identity through a common dream by translating our National Goals and Directive Principles stipulated in the Constitution into a bible that will guide every decisions that we make concerning our nation’s welfare and not merely an abstract goal in a text book but something that we as Papua New Guineans should aspire to and strive in building a nation based on the integral development of all citizens, equity and participation, national sovereignty and self-reliance, development of natural resources based on environmental sustainability and Papua New Guinean ways where there should be a revival and promotion of indigenous ontologies, epistemologies and cultural practices which is the source of our identity.

    *Solomon Kantha is an East-West Center Degree Fellow and a Masters Candidate in Political Science at the University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, United States of America

  2. Thank you very much Solomon for a very comprehensive yet brief description of our dilemma, I hope to see you one day advising the government where you can. We need more analytical approaches to nation buildling like this.

    Good Luck with all your dreams in 2007!

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