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Solomon Islands Newspaper Pledged to Promote ‘Truth about China’s Generosity’ in Return for Funding

The Solomon Star denies accusations of ‘giving away’ its independence by accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.

Local media in Solomon Islands have been accused of compromising their independence by entering into agreements with Chinese news organisations and accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment from the Chinese embassy.

Since the Solomon Islands government signed a high-profile security agreement with China in March 2022, some newspapers in the Pacific country have received cars, cameras, phones and printing machinery that costs thousands of dollars from the Chinese government, via its local embassy, according to local journalists. Some have raised concern about the gifts and the continued close dialogue between media organisations in China and Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Star newspaper received nearly US$140,000 in funding from the Chinese government and in return pledged to “promote the truth about China’s generosity and its true intentions to help develop” the Pacific Islands country, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported.

A funding proposal sent from the Solomon Star to China’s embassy in Honiara, seen by the OCCRP, said that decrepit equipment was causing editions to come out late and “curtailing news flow about China’s generous and lightning economic and infrastructure development in Solomon Islands”.

The OCCRP counted about a dozen instances in the proposal in which funding was said to be needed to tell the Chinese story in a positive light, the organisation’s lead editor for the Pacific, Aubrey Belford, said.

In an editorial published on Tuesday, the Solomon Star said it had nothing to hide and admitted receiving funding from China.

The paper denied that the funding had affected its editorial independence, saying it had published “news items not in the favour of China and the Chinese embassy in Honiara never issued a reproachment.”

The Solomon Star said it had also sought funding from the Australia and the US but received no response.

“It’s a complaint we see from Pacific media who have struggled to receive the funding they need to continue as unbiased news organisations,” Belford said.

“There’s been a bottomless pit of money for the Pacific if it’s national security or detention of asylum seekers, but when it comes to support civil society and a free press the region has been starved and China has stepped into the void.”

The funding proposal was for money that would go towards printing equipment for the newspaper and a broadcast tower for their affiliated radio station.

A journalist from the Solomon Star newspaper, speaking to the Guardian anonymously, said support from the Chinese government and Chinese media partners also arrived in the form of equipment. The newsroom received a car, cameras, laptops, iPhones and a drone, they said.

“Our editor is part of the team who attended meetings at the [Chinese] embassy here, and these items has been delivered to us. In return we were told to be a bit more sensitive when covering China issues,” the journalist told the Guardian.

Similar gifts were delivered to the Island Sun newspaper from the Chinese embassy in Honiara according to Ofani Eremae, the paper’s former editor. In August 2021, the Island Sun announced that the Chinese embassy had donated computers to the paper, saying they would be used to support the “dissemination of information” during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Solomon Islands’ relationship with China has faced increased scrutiny since the signing of the security agreement between the two countries last year. Some western leaders have raised concerns over the potential influence that China could exert over the country.

A leaked email seen by the Guardian highlights the apparent tensions at the Solomon Star on how the newspaper should cover China.

After a visit by the Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, to China earlier this month, a senior member of staff complained that a front page story reporting on the costs of the trip was a source of “profound disappointment”.

The staff member went on to say that “such publicity makes it very difficult for me to deal with the Chinese embassy on matters pertaining to Chinese government support for Solomon Star”.

“Our story suggests we subscribe to the anti-China sentiments. We don’t,” they added.

Courted by state media

The Chinese embassy has also encouraged local Solomon Islands media to enter into informal partnerships with Chinese newspapers and broadcasters.

In the days after the security deal with China was first leaked and western countries scrambled to respond, the Chinese embassy began to make connections with local media, said Eremae. On 8 April 2022the embassy convened a two-hour Zoom meeting between local media organisations and media groups from Guangdong province China, with the aim of establishing relationships between different news organisations.

Among the organisations represented at the meeting were the Solomon Star and Islands Sun newspapers.

Eremae, then editor of the Island Sun, was a guest at the meeting. He told the Guardian that it was proposed that his newspaper enter into a relationship with the Nanfang Daily, the official state newspaper of Guangdong province.

Soon after, Eremae received an email from a representative of the Nanfang Media Group asking what areas of the Islands Sun newspaper needed support and cooperation.

Eremae had concerns that such a relationship could compromise the independence of his news organisation and left the Island Sun in December last year. “The owners of the media organisation are giving away the independence of their news organisation,” he said.

The Solomon Star, Island Sun and Chinese embassy in Solomon Islands were all approached for comment.

Graeme Smith, senior fellow at Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, says relationships with Chinese media could potentially compromise independence.

“All Chinese media has to be state approved and is tightly controlled. The diversity of the media is diminishing over time under Xi Jinping. Essentially all media coming out of China is quickly reigned in if they push too far,” he said.

Source : The Guardian

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