Bougainville News Webinar Alert : The use of mobile technologies in the 2019 Bougainville referendum presents both opportunities and challenges for the future of democracy in the Pacific

 ” The use of mobile technologies in the 2019 Bougainville referendum presents both opportunities and challenges for the future of democracy in the Pacific, Amanda H A Watson, Jeremy Miller and Adriana Schmidt write.

In late 2019, the people of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) voted in a non-binding referendum offering two choices: greater autonomy or independence. People voted overwhelmingly for independence (97.71 per cent) in what was widely regarded to be a successful process, with an informed and engaged citizenry.

In the pre-referendum period, there was a strong emphasis on the need for widespread voter education to enhance the credibility and legitimacy of the vote itself, and to maintain unity and peace. A number of initiatives were undertaken by the Bougainville government and other partners to overcome people’s lack of access to traditional mass media (radio, television and newspapers).”

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘Discussion paper’ series. The original paper can be found here.

The research will also be presented in a webinar on 27 October 2020. 

This article focuses on one initiative, a telephone information hotline that operated for eight weeks just before polling. It allowed people to ring a free-call number and hear pre-recorded messages about peacebuilding and the three pillars of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. Callers were able to press 1 to hear information on peacebuilding, 2 for autonomy, 3 for the referendum and 4 for weapons disposal.

Each message was less than two minutes and recordings were updated weekly. This provided about an hour’s worth of audio information in total. The service was promoted through traditional media channels, but principally through an introductory, automated ‘robocall’ from the President of Bougainville. This was followed by subsequent weekly text messages announcing the availability of new recordings. 

The service was the first of its kind in PNG and was envisaged as a short pilot to identify the usefulness of the technology for public information dissemination in Bougainville. It was implemented by the Autonomous Bougainville Government with the support of the PNG, Australian and New Zealand governments, and operated by Digicel.

Research into the efficacy of the service was undertaken during its final two weeks, just prior to polling. Eight group interviews were conducted with local community leaders, women and youths in a mix of rural and urban settings across Bougainville.

Of the 42 people who participated in the group interviews, 37 owned mobile telephones at the time of the research. Many of the handsets were basic mobile telephones – suitable for text messaging and calls only – rather than smartphones. Many handsets had flat batteries on the day of the group interview – this indicates a technological challenge of daily life in Bougainville, which has consequences for mobile telephone initiatives.

While 79,285 calls were made to the hotline over the eight-week pilot, overall, the knowledge of the telephone hotline amongst research participants was generally low. The automated ‘robocall’ from the President announcing the service was not in fact received by most participants, and many did not consistently receive the weekly text message reminders. This indicated that the strategy fell short of its promise, which reduced uptake of the service.

As intended, some users gathered in groups to listen to the recordings. Also, the hotline had been used in places where people had no access to radio and very limited access to other forms of media. Participants generally thought the hotline should be continued in the post-referendum period but suggested increasing awareness of the service itself.

There was much discussion about the need to improve mobile network coverage, which participants said was weak and inconsistent, with no coverage in some villages. There were also requests for improvements to other communication mediums, particularly radio broadcasting. Despite these challenges, it was perceived that referendum awareness had been thorough. Most participants felt they and their fellow community members had sufficient knowledge about the referendum and were ready to vote. 

The research found no striking differences in the awareness or use of the service by age or gender. Differences were noticeable, however, between the three regions of Bougainville regarding access to mobile network coverage, as well as access to other information and communication mediums. For example, in South Bougainville, participants reported substantial challenges with the quality and reach of mobile network signals and said that they had almost no access to radio stations, newspapers or television.

As Hogeveen argues, there is a trend in the Pacific region towards ‘digital aid’ in which international donors utilise information and communication technologies. The Bougainville hotline is one such example. Chand contends that, given limited access to radio, textbooks and other information sources, the utilisation of digital technologies could allow delivery of basic services in Bougainville. For example, as part of their emergency response to COVID-19, both the PNG and Bougainville governments are operating free-call telephone information hotlines for their citizens. 

The design of the referendum hotline was in line with published guidelines for the strategic use of mobile telephones in PNG. For instance, that technology should be simple to use for people with low literacy, numeracy and technical skills. This hotline was relatively simple to use, providing a free-call number, with four options of audio messages to listen to.

 Even so, some research participants did not understand how to select the four options or that the messages changed each week. Careful consideration of ‘mobile telephone literacy’ is needed in the design and promotion of future innovative services.

Research participants commented that the free-call design was beneficial for them. Lack of mobile telephone credit is a huge barrier for people throughout PNG, due to both affordability and logistical challenges of locating a place or method to buy credit. 

So, what are the implications for the delivery of public information in Bougainville and elsewhere in the Pacific? 

Effective government-to-people communications are vital for an informed and engaged citizenry and are essential for the effective operation of democracy. For Bougainville, it could be argued that the post-referendum negotiation process now taking place between the Bougainville and national governments requires an even more intensive communications and community engagement effort. If there are broader lessons to be learnt, it is that an engaged and informed population, reached through a range of mediums, can make a positive contribution to the process. 

If there are to be future iterations of a telephone hotline in Bougainville or elsewhere, it must be but one tool in an multi-channel effort. The technology must be pre-tested and well promoted. Research participants also suggested leveraging the hotline for use in community-based, face-to-face activities.

Some asked if the audio files could be made available through other means, such as flash drives. Sharing of digital content by Bluetooth or local Wi-Fi hotspots does present another opportunity for those with suitable devices.

Mobile telephones, particularly when paired with other mediums, can play a role in delivering civic education and increasing community engagement throughout the Pacific. However, the design of future mobile telephone-led interventions may benefit from being realistic about the effective reach of current mobile telephone service and infrastructure. 

This bigger issue of large information ‘blackspots’ in Bougainville, due to poor access to mobile telephony, radio or other information channels, will continue to challenge government and development communicators alike. Mobile telephone users in Bougainville struggle with accessing continuous, reliable mobile network coverage and keeping their handset batteries charged – and they want radio coverage restored to pre-conflict standards. Both in Bougainville and elsewhere in PNG, there is a large gap between ideal and actual service delivery. 

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This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘Discussion paper’ series. The original paper can be found here. The research will also be presented in a webinar on 27 October 2020. 

Bougainville News Alert : WEBINAR – Mobile telephones on for public messaging: Did the Bougainville referendum information hotline make a difference? @AdrianaAdri09 @ahawatson @GordonPeake @Jezzamiller

 

Last year, the people of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville voted overwhelmingly to break away from Papua New Guinea in a non-binding referendum.

In the pre-referendum period, there was a strong focus on informing voters about the two referendum options (independence or greater autonomy) to enhance the credibility and legitimacy of the result and help maintain peace in a post-conflict setting.

This seminar will include brief presentations by the producers of a telephone information hotline that operated for eight weeks just before polling. The hotline was a national first in the application of a mobile telephone-based platform to deliver public information en masse.

 It allowed Bougainvilleans to ring a free-call number and hear pre-recorded messages about the referendum and the two other pillars of the Bougainville Peace Agreement – autonomy and weapons disposal.

The hotline was one element of a multi-media package of government information initiatives supported by Australia and New Zealand.

There will also be a presentation by the audience researcher who analysed the impact of the service.

The qualitative research findings, which were recently published as a part of the Discussion Paper Series of the Department of Pacific Affairs, assess the effectiveness of the telephone hotline in delivering government information directly to citizens. Recommendations will be made about whether such a service should continue.

NOTE: For our audience in Port Moresby and Bougainville, the event will be at 3PM and 4PM respectively (local times).

REGISTER HERE

Chair

Gordon Peake
Gordon Peake is a 2020-2021 Visitor with the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University. He worked as an adviser to the Bougainville government 2016-2020.

Panellists

Amanda H.A. Watson
Amanda H.A. Watson is a Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University.

Jeremy Miller
Jeremy Miller is a strategic media and communications adviser with over 15 years of experience in Melanesia. He has worked with the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s Directorate of Media and Communication since 2014. In 2019 he was seconded to the Bougainville Referendum Commission to lead the media and voter communications campaign. Mr Miller’s position is supported by the Bougainville Partnership, a development partnership between the governments of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.

Adriana Schmidt
Adriana Schmidt is the Director of the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s Directorate of Media and Communication, the agency responsible for whole of government communications. The Directorate is under the Department of President and the Bougainville Executive Council.

Bougainville News : ‘Deal with the disaster’: The girl from #Bougainville who grew up to take on a mining giant RTZ

“Panguna mine is often cast as the economic key to Bougainville’s potential independence, but young MP Theonila Matbob says her people, and their land, must come first ” 

by Leanne Jorari and Ben Doherty writing in the Guardian

For all of Theonila Roka Matbob’s three decades, the scar on her land that was once the world’s largest copper mine has cast a pall.

The Panguna mine in Bougainville, eastern Papua New Guinea, has not yielded a single ounce in her lifetime – forced shut the year before Matbob was born – but she grew up in the shadow of the violent civil war it provoked.

When she was just three years old, her father, John Roka, was murdered by the secessionist soldiers who had forced the mine to close. Spending years in a “care centre” run by the PNG defence force, she remembers a childhood dominated by an all-pervasive fear, where the sound of gunshots regularly rang out across the valley, where neighbours disappeared from their homes, their bodies later found slaughtered.

There is peace now, but memories remain, and “we live with the impacts of Panguna every day,” Matbob says.

“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution.

“Every time it rains more waste washes into the rivers, causing flooding for villages further downstream. Some communities now have to spend two hours a day walking just to get clean drinking water because their nearby creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”

Panguna is quiet these days. The mining trucks lie rusting in Bougainville’s clammy heat; the massive pit carved into the middle of a mountain is inhabited by a handful alluvial miners, digging with hand tools for what gold remains; and the Kawerong-Jaba river delta downstream is flooded with bright blue toxic waters which poison the land and the people who live there.

And Matbob, the little girl who grew up in the shadow of the mine’s violence, is now a parliamentarian, determined to seek redress for her people.

Newly elected to the Bougainville parliament for the electorate of Ioro, which encompasses Panguna, Matbob has led a formal complaint filed with the Australian government against Rio Tinto for environmental and human rights violations caused by the mine.

The complaint, supported by more than 150 members of her electorate and by the Human Rights Law Centre, alleges that the massive volume of waste pollution left behind by the mine is putting communities’ lives and livelihoods at risk, poisoning their water, damaging their health, flooding their lands and sacred sites, and leaving them “in a deteriorating, increasingly dangerous situation”.

A toxic legacy

Panguna was an immensely profitable mine. Over 17 years it made more than $US2bn for the mine’s former owner and operator Rio Tinto, who pulled 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and 450,000 ounces of gold from the mine in its last year alone.

At one point, Panguna accounted for 45% of all of PNG’s exports, and 12% of its GDP.

But for those whose land it was, Panguna brought but a sliver of the wealth and development that was promised – less than 1% of profits – leaving behind a legacy only of division, violence, and environmental degradation.

In 1989, amid rising fury at the environmental damage and the inequitable division of the mine’s profits, customary landowners forced the mine closed, blowing up Panguna’s power lines and sabotaging operations.

The PNG government sent in troops against its own citizens to restart the foreign-owned mine – at the behest of Rio, it says – sparking a civil war that would rage for a decade. Along with a protracted military blockade, it led to the deaths of as many as 20,000 people.

Rio Tinto cut and run, and has never returned to the island, claiming it is unsafe, despite pleas from landowners to repair the vast and ongoing environmental damage.

“These are not problems we can fix with our bare hands,” Matbob says. “We urgently need Rio Tinto to do what’s right and deal with the disaster they have left behind.”

‘We expect a fair share’

A product of Bougainville’s matrilineal society, which bestows women with custodianship of land and community authority, Matbob speaks quietly but forcefully.

A teacher by profession, and mother of two, she studied at universities in Madang and Goroka before working as a social worker and running for parliament. She beat a field of 15 candidates, including several former revolutionary soldiers, and even her own brother.

But the parliament to which Matbob has been elected has another primary and overwhelming concern, though one intimately related: negotiating independence from Papua New Guinea.

Last year, the province voted 98% in favour of seceding from Port Moresby, and the new president, former Bougainville Revolutionary Army commander Ishmael Toroama, has promised to deliver liberation.

Despite resistance from PNG’s government to losing its resource-rich eastern province, there is genuine expectation amongst Bougainvilleans that their decision to secede will be honoured.

Upe men line up to vote in the 2019 independence referendum in Teau, Bougainville. Photograph: Jeremy Miller/AP

But the argument allied to political independence in Bougainville is that it can only be achieved alongside economic autonomy.

To that end, the argument runs, re-opening Panguna is the surest, perhaps the only, way a small province of just 300,000 people can survive as an independent nation. On Bougainville, the issue of independence has become inextricably linked to that of resources, for which Panguna has become a grim synecdoche.

“Large-scale mining provides a route to fiscal self-reliance, but this strategy has risks,” a report by Dr Satish Chand for the National Research Institute of PNG found, arguing of Panguna, “the viability of this project, the… profitability of the mine, and the revenues generated for… government are all speculative”.

Deeply embedded in Bougainville’s political psyche is a belief in the transformative power of political and economic independence – most likely achieved through mining – to bring prosperity, development and stability after decades of turmoil and privation.

But those expectations may prove difficult to marry with reality: an independent Bougainville would likely face a revenue shortfall of tens of millions of dollars a year.

“The Autonomous Bougainville Government had, by 2016, reached just 6% of the distance to fiscal self-reliance,” Chand found.

Unquestionably there is money to be made on Bougainville: the potential profits to be pulled from Panguna alone have been valued at close to $60bn. But profits for whom?

New president Toroama, once a leader of the militancy that forced the mine to close, says any decision on its future lies with local landowners.

“Panguna mine will be a key target but we will not put all our eggs in one basket,” Toroama told Bougainville’s parliament last month in his maiden speech.

“We welcome foreign investment, because without outside funding and technologies, we may not be able to exploit our natural resources. But we expect a fair share of return and participation.”

As their elected representative, Matbob is more definitive. Her people must come first.

“Though there is a future for Panguna,” she tells the Guardian from her electorate, “… it will have to be shelved until the needs of my people are well addressed.”

Crowded with outsiders

Bougainville’s acute political uncertainty – poised, potentially, on the threshold of nationhood, with all of its attendant vulnerabilities – has brought ferocious renewed attention on Panguna.

An alphabet soup of foreign mining companies – at least four registered in Perth alone – have sought to carve up the province for future exploitation.

The jostling for position and favour with both the Bougainville and PNG governments has been sharp-elbowed, with accusatory press statements and missives to the stock exchange, even spilling into Australian courts.

Companies have variously accused others of corruption and bribing government officials, of being responsible for environmental vandalism or complicit in military atrocities.

And a Chinese delegation reported to have travelled to the province in 2018 was rumoured to have pledged $1bn to fund its transition to independence, accompanied by offers to invest in mining, tourism, and agriculture.

An allied, independent, and resource-rich Bougainville – in the middle of Melanesia and so soon after neighbouring Solomon Islands flipped to recognise Beijing over Taipei – would be of significant strategic value to China.

Even Rio, after years of claiming it could never return to Panguna, has recently indicated it is not entirely out of the picture, saying it was “ready to enter into discussions with communities”.

“We are aware of the deteriorating mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and acknowledge that there are environmental and human rights considerations.”

For a small island, Bougainville is, suddenly, very crowded.

Matbob understands the enthusiasm of outsiders to return to Bougainville. But for too long, she says, her people’s priorities were subsumed to those of foreign interests, and to profit.

“The Bougainville revolution… was founded on the protection of people, land, environment and culture,” she tells the Guardian.

“Though there is a future for Panguna… there are a lot of legacy issues attached to it. As the new member representing the Ioro people, I say it will have to be shelved until the needs of my people are well addressed.”