Solomon Islands newspaper promised positive China coverage in exchange for funding

The Solomon Star owners agreed to promote China as the ‘most generous and trusted development partner.’
By Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2023.08.01
Wellington
Solomon Islands newspaper promised positive China coverage in exchange for funding Pedestrians walk past China’s embassy in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara on Nov. 16, 2022.
Stephen Wright/BenarNews

A Solomon Islands news company was granted more than U.S.$130,000 by the Chinese government in exchange for agreeing to “promote the truth about China’s generosity and its true intention to help develop” the Pacific island country, a funding document and email reviewed by RFA-affiliated news organization BenarNews shows.

The Solomon Islands has become a hotspot in Chinese-U.S. rivalry in the Pacific after the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched the island country’s diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019.

The Solomons signed a security pact with China last year, alarming the United States and allies such as Australia, who fear it could pave the way for a Chinese military presence in the region.

The July 2022 funding proposal from the owners of the Solomon Star newspaper and its Paoa FM radio station to the Chinese embassy says a partnership will benefit Beijing by “promoting China as the most generous and trusted development partner in Solomon Islands.”

The pay-for-play arrangement was first reported Sunday by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which is funded by nonprofit foundations and government agencies. It says its Pacific reporting is funded by a no-strings attached U.S. government grant.  

The documents reviewed by BenarNews provide specific details of what was an open secret in some circles in the Solomon Islands about largesse from China’s embassy directed at the country’s media. The Solomon Star is one of two main newspapers in the Solomon Islands.

A July 17 email to several Solomon Star reporters from the paper’s senior journalist, Alfred Sasako, reprimanded the reporters for critical coverage of Sogavare’s official visit that month to Beijing.

“I write to place on record my profound disappointment about our front page article, titled China Trip Exposed,” Sasako said in the email reviewed by BenarNews.

“My further disappointment is the fact that such publicity makes it very difficult for me to deal with the Chinese Embassy on matters pertaining to Chinese Government support for [the] Solomon Star,” he said in the email that also extolled the benefits of China’s assistance to the Solomon Islands.

Sasako didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.  

AP23191120098816.jpg
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, right, and his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Monday, July 10, 2023. Credit: AP/Pool

An editorial in the Solomon Star’s Tuesday edition defended its Chinese government funding and denied the Chinese embassy had reproached the newspaper for negative coverage or attempted to censor any reports.

“Yes, Solomon Star has nothing to hide,” said the article. “We have received funding support from China.” It claimed that other media organizations and journalists in the Solomon Islands were also receiving or seeking Chinese government funding.

The funding document said the Lamani family-owned Solomon Star approached the Chinese embassy in 2021 about financial assistance and the embassy agreed to provide about U.S.$41,000. 

The agreed funding was increased in June 2022 to about U.S.$133,000 based on a “new Project format” provided by the embassy, it said.

The media outlet’s finances were battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing it to sack half of its 100 staff, and an aging printing press meant it was sometimes unable to print its editions on time, according to the document. 

It expressed concern about delays in getting the funds for new printing equipment, which meant the “intent of our mutual partnership to inform, educate and entertain the people of Solomon Islands about China and its development marvels has suffered as well.” 

The paper prints 6,000 copies daily and estimated readership to be double that.

China, over several decades, has become a substantial source of trade, infrastructure and aid for developing Pacific island countries as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and build its own set of global institutions. 

The Solomon Islands has been China’s highest profile success in building influence among Pacific island countries in recent years. 

Under Sogavare, the Solomon Islands has sought to benefit from the rivalry between China and the U.S. by securing more development assistance. The country, an archipelago about 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) northeast of Brisbane, Australia, struggles with crumbling roads, limited telecommunications and lack of basic healthcare.

Sogavare was feted by China’s leaders during his week-long visit to the country last month. He, in turn, heaped praise on his hosts including the “visionary” leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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