THE TOKAUT BLOG
ONeill Government Ban Rocks Film Festival
Over the weekend, the National Government banned a documentary film, The Opposition, from screening at the PNG Human Rights Film Festival. The film scrutinises a major Port Moresby property deal linked to the Works Minister, Michael Nali, the State Enterprises Minister, William Duma, and controversial Icelandic businessman Gudmundur Fridriksson. As the O’Neill government increasingly cracks down on dissent, Professor Kristian Lasslett looks at what might be behind this latest attack on free speech.
News broke Friday evening that the Minister for Justice & Attorney General made an order, in effect, banning The Opposition documentary from screening at the Papua New Guinea Human Rights Film Festival in Port Moresby.
The film scrutinises the elusive luxury estate being developed in Port Moresby by the Paga Hill Development Company.
What baffles most observers is that the festival organisers – the UN, Transparency International PNG, US Government, etc – complied with this dubious state-corporate demand.
One of The Opposition’s Producers Rebecca Barry posted on social media the unconvincing rationale for the ban provided by festival organisers:
At 6.12pm last night, we received an email from the programmers of the festival stating that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General is stopping the screening of the film. The programmers gave the following reason: “The Opposition” film is subject to a court proceeding ‘OS No. 365 of 2017’ and is awaiting a decision from the National Court. Under these circumstances we have been advised that we are unable to screen the film in the rest of the Film Festival program.”.
Festival organisers then informed the public about their decision to uphold the government ban via Facebook (ironically the very platform which the O’Neill government once threatened to black-out).
Yesterday, the Justice Minister & Attorney General mounted a full page defence of his ban which was generously splashed on p.4 of the Post-Courier. He claims the decision was precipitated by a letter from lawyers representing the property development outfit, Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Limited, ‘advising that screening of the said film may amount to contempt of the National Court in os 365 of 2017’.
Paga Hill Development Company is a corporate vehicle closely linked to the Justice Minister’s cabinet colleagues William Duma and Michael Nali. Despite its chequered past, PHDC has received full backing from a Prime Minister whose own track record in the real-estate sector was lambasted in two Commissions of Inquiry.
Note the ambiguity in the Justice Minister’s defence. He doesn’t cite any court order or injunction that would bring the festival in contempt of Court. A rather critical requirement. Instead the Minister makes a vague reference to a court case, and his government’s supposed respect for the law, a respect that is not actually demonstrated in practice.
Rebecca Barry hit back:
To be clear – there is no active case against The Opposition in the National Court of PNG, nor has there ever been. The case mentioned above refers to the proceedings between the Paga Hill Development Company and director Hollie Fifer. These proceedings were filed over a year ago and been left dormant since that time. It is disingenuous and inaccurate to suggest that these proceedings are ‘active’ let alone suggest that this case includes The Opposition film. The film has screened unencumbered in other parts of PNG. The last minute ban on todays screening has raised many questions. We can only assume that the high profile nature of this festival and with APEC around the corner that this is a film that the government does not want the PNG public to see.
This raises the question, what is it that the O’Neill government doesn’t want the Port Moresby public to see?
The Opposition centres on one community’s struggle against a team of foreign executives who are looking to transform a quite slice of the Port Moresby harbour at Paga Hill – once a National Park – into a luxury estate, that will cater largely to the big end of town. The same end being treated to Masarati Quattroporte cars by the O’Neill government.
The Paga Hill Estate development is spearheaded by the Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Limited (PHDC).
PHDC is led by Gudmundur Fridriksson, while its Chief Operating Officer (COO) is George Hallit, men who have run companies censured for malfeasance in a wide range of public inquiries (see Appendix A for a full list).
They have now disappeared from the company’s share registry, along with PHDC’s most prominent local backer, Michael Nali, the current Works Minister, and close mate of the Prime Minister. Legal ownership of all shares in PHDC reside with the developer’s lawyer, Stanley Liria.
Because there is no requirement for companies in PNG to publicly declare individuals with a beneficial interest, who may not be the same as the legal owners of shares, we have no way of knowing all the individuals who could have a stake in this venture. Though a PNGi investigation revealed that State Enterprises Minister, William Duma, has enjoyed a beneficial interest in the Paga Hill Estate, a fact attested by a senior PHDC executive.
The plot thickens in 2016. Curiously at a time when PHDC was apparently owned by two PNG citizens, Michael Nali and Stanley Liria, it applied for foreign certification. All companies that are 50% foreign owned must be certified before they can lawfully conduct business in PNG.
If it was 100% nationally owned why was foreign certification needed?
This foreign certification request by PHDC in 2016 provokes further questions over the actual beneficial owners of this enterprise.
Then there is the ‘small’ matter of the land deals that have seen PHDC acquire this prize piece of Port Moresby real-estate at Paga Hill.
Initially an Urban Development Lease was issued to the Paga Hill Land Holding Company Limited in 1997 when the land was zoned open space. This violation of the Land Act 1996 s67, was passed off as a trivial matter by the leaseholder who observed:
The application process for an Urban Development Lease, which would normally be required by the Land Act 1996 and the Physical Planning Act of 1989, has been altered in order to provide for the best development outcome for the Paga Hill site. None of the requirements of the existing process will be excluded, rather the timing of application and approval has been altered to provide for a more flexible and intuitive approach to the development of the site.
Contravening the law of PNG is not a trivial matter at all, a point well made by the Public Accounts Committee.
Mysteriously the lease then passed to PHDC in 2000, an entirely different corporate vehicle linked to the Land Holding Company by one shareholder, Fidelity Management Pty Ltd. Fidelity Management was owned by a Western Australian accountancy firm, that tellingly shared a registered address with Gudmundur Fridriksson.
When the 99 year lease was issued to PHDC in 2000, it was a 100% Australian owned vehicle. There is no record it was certified at the time to conduct business in PNG (foreign certification was acquired some 16 years later). So the 99 year lease was issued at a time when PHDC could not lawfully conduct business in PNG under the Investment Promotion Act 1992 s32(4).
When the Public Accounts Committee scrutinised the deal, they accused those involved of securing the land through ‘corrupt dealings’ and pointed to a further list of illegalities underpinning the state lease.
All of which led Dame Carol Kidu to rally behind the Paga Hill community when they launched a campaign to expose PHDC and its corporate past. She was outraged by the means through which PHDC acquired the land. Eyebrows raised when Dame Carol later joined with the developer in a consultancy deal worth A$178,000, to her company CK Consultancy Limited.
Kidu then sued The Opposition‘s Director, Hollie Fifer, with PHDC putting up A$250,000 in security to the Australian Courts. Kidu suffered a resounding defeat in the New South Wales Supreme Court. In a damning verdict Judge Rein, observed at paragraph 65 in his judgement:
When one views the extreme weaknesses of the Plaintiff’s [Dame Carol Kidu] claim that she did not know on and from 7 March 2012 that Ms Fifer was hoping to make a documentary for public exhibition rather than a student assignment (whatever its topic) the impression gained is that the Plaintiff is prepared, for her own benefit and that of PHDC, to say anything to stop the footage taken of her by Ms Fifer being broadcast.
The Supreme Court decision can be read here.
Given the elite interests bound up with this development it is perhaps not that surprising the O’Neill Government did not want The Opposition to screen in Port Moresby, as an increasingly enraged city populous await the chutzpah of APEC – where wealth and pomp will be flaunted in the face of the everyday citizen’s struggle to survive in a city where the cost of living is outrageous.
What is surprising, at least at first glance, is that the festival organisers have not published a formal protest condemning this move by the O’Neill Government.
Then again maybe not.
After all, the UNDP’s Head came out in support of the developer, in a misinformed public speech lauding the project, while PHDC’s CEO looked on like the proverbial cat that got the cream.
It took years for the UNDP’s head to withdraw his support. Better late than never.
Another festival organiser is the US Embassy. It is an organisation that has also apparently allowed their respected name to be caught up in promotional materials featured on PHDC’s website.
To all this it might be observed that the human rights film festival aired a fairly transparent promotional piece for the developer in its 2014 programme, entitled ‘Humanitarian Resettlement in Papua New Guinea’. The film’s description is telling:
Gudmundur Fridriksson celebrates the achievement of Paga Hill Development Company’s vision for a harmonious relocation solution for the on-site settlement community at the official handover ceremony at Tagua. The United Nations (UN) has hailed Paga Hill Development Company’s resettlement model as a significant achievement as it sets a positive precedent in PNG and the broader region.
Surely it is only fair a genuinely independent film on the same issue is shown in 2018, without impeding on freedom of speech. Apparently not!
It appears for now the Port Moresby public will have to be satisfied with the trailer for The Opposition.
Responsibility lies with the festival organisers to condemn this move by the O’Neill government, which comes in the aftermath of a range of efforts by the government to curtail domestic dissent and ban foreign critics.
Organisations such as the United Nations, Transparency International and the United States government, wield immense institutional power that shields them from the forms of violent retribution ordinary citizens face for opposing the interests of senior power-brokers.
They must exercise this leverage in solidarity with the grass-roots. Continued silence will speak volumes about where their real loyalties lie.
Appendix A – Paga Hill Estate executives and their links to public inquiries