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PNG turns on to social media
Catherine Graue reports on how social media is impacting on PNG's political culture.

In just two decades, the internet has connected people around the world by the billions.

But there are some gaps. In Papua New Guinea, for example, just 2 per cent of the population are online.

But internet use is growing fast and access to social media is helping people find their political voice.

Catherine Graue reports.

ALEX RHEENY, LOWY INSTITUTE: Papua New Guineans have always faced - they've always had the issue about being left out of the government's decision making processes.

NOU VADA, PNG STREET BLOOGER: The disdain towards this is growing every day. If there's any measure of this disdain you just have to go on Facebook and read the comments of Papua New Guineans. They're angry.

CATHERINE GRAUE, REPORTER: In a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, mobile phones and the internet, which were out of reach for so many for so long, have now become affordable. And on social media websites and blogs there has been a blossoming of discussion.

ALEX RHEENY: There's hundreds, if not thousands, of Papua New Guineans who continue to open Facebook accounts. It was only over the last one to two years when Papua New Guineans started opening Facebook discussion groups and delved into issues relating to politics, health, HIV AIDS and even violence against women.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Deregulation of Papua New Guinea's telecommunications sector five years ago has resulted in the rapid growth of cheaper internet services. PNG journalist and part time blogger, Alex Rheeny, says that's having a significant impact on PNG's political culture.

ALEX RHEENY: Papua New Guinea sees social media is the avenue in which they're able to engage constructively in the sort of debating the policies the government brings down that will impact on Papua New Guinea's way of life.

CATHERINE GRAUE: There are now more than 200 people across PNG writing their own blogs. One of those is this law student Nou Vada, a self described street blogger living in the capital Port Moresby.

NOU VADA: We had it ability to bring the news to Papua New Guineans the way conventional media, mainstream media can't. I guess it was the silence, the conspiracy of silence that I saw was just really bad in this country. People who could talk about the change refusing to talk about the change. That's what prompted me to blog.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Politics in PNG has always been lively, but in recent months it's been even more unsettled than usual.

The past six months have seen a constitutional crisis, a short lived military mutiny and confusion over whether elections would be held on time.

But instead of remaining silent, thousands of people of Papua New Guinea have headed online to have their say. In recent months, thousands have also turned out on the streets to protest.

(Footage of protest)

PROTEST LEADER: I want to tell media people this is not final.

CATHERINE GRAUE: And behind the scenes, much has been organised via the internet.

NOU VADA: Recently we saw the Facebook discussion group Sharp Talk, its core members banded together and helped organise the second protest against the Judicial Conduct Act and the deferral of elections.

And this political impasse as much as it is a topic on its own, it could be - it could well become a catalyst for something even bigger in Papua New Guinea. I don't know; maybe a Melanesian Spring, maybe a revolution.

(Footage of protest during Arab Spring)

CATHERINE GRAUE: Social media played a key role in the uprisings across the Arab world last year.

(Footage of protest in PNG)

Few believe PNG is headed down that path, but Alex Rheeny says social media is providing new opportunities for the people of Papua New Guineans to engage in public action in a way never seen before.

ALEX RHEENY: The fact is that Papua New Guinea is a culturally diverse nation, there has never been an opportunity available for Papua New Guineans to unite via remote control, in this case via a laptop or via a mobile phone.

LAWRENCE STEPHENS, TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL: In the past it was public forums, it was outside markets and so on. Now we're finding people are spreading information or perhaps stories of what's going on rapidly between each other and there are some downsides of that. There's the potential for spreading rumours that are not factual.

CATHERINE GRAUE: And that's what's got the prime minister's chief of staff concerned.

(Still of newspaper advertisements)

In February Ben Micah took out newspaper advertisements vowing that people who spread "malicious and misleading information" online would be dealt with, much to the outrage of PNG's social media users, as well as groups such as the International Federation of Journalists.

The prime minister, Peter O'Neil denies he has any plans to suppress free speech, but the PNG government, like others around the world, is fast discovering the power of social media.

ALEX RHEENY: I believe social media will actually go a long way in enhancing democracy in Papua New Guinea.

I think the only challenge now for Papua New Guinea's leaders and especially the next batch of politicians who come into PNG's parliament, is how do you embrace social media and affect the thousands of Papua New Guineans who are actually using social media as a platform to communicate and express their desires for a better Papua New Guinea.
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