Interview: Eoin Blackwell, AAP’s last correspondent to Papua New Guinea

After nearly 60 years, the Australian Associated Press news agency has closed its Papua New Guinea office. Business Advantage PNG asked AAP’s departing correspondent to reflect on his two-year tour of duty.

Eoin Blackwell, former AAP correspondent

Eoin Blackwell, former AAP correspondent

Business Advantage PNG (BAPNG): You’ve just finished your stint in PNG. What were the highlights of your time in PNG?

Eoin Blackwell (EW): There were so many. As a journalist, I always figured I’d see a handful of  truly historic moments throughout my whole career. That perspective was shattered on 2 August 2011—a week after I started my posting—when the Somare government collapsed and Peter O’Neill and Belden Namah took over. It was pretty much rolling coverage of intense political times from thereon in—the moves against the Supreme Court, the march on Government House, the split in the police force, Namah storming the Supreme Court, the election.

BAPNG: What things do you wish you’d known before you arrived in the country?  What tips would you offer an overseas news organisation or journalist looking to cover PNG?

EW: To be honest, I wish I didn’t believe the ‘danger hype’ about PNG. Don’t get me wrong. PNG can be a very unsafe in places and you always need your wits about you, but it isn’t Baghdad. My experiences with people living in my community near Ela Beach were overwhelmingly positive and I always felt safe in the area. I guess the tip I would offer any journalist is: ‘Don’t hesitate. See as much as you can, get to know as many people as you can. It’s the best form of security in PNG.’

‘Proper security and better roads would see more produce flow into the cities and boost PNG’s rural economies.’

BAPNG: PNG’s economy has grown significantly over the past decade. After LNG, where do you think its greatest potential lies?

EW: Farming and fishing. LNG—both the Exxonmobil-led plant and the others—will be part of PNG’s story for a while.

But the country also has a strong coffee industry and I have yet to meet a single Papua New Guinean who isn’t at least familiar with farming.

Proper security and better roads would see more produce flow into the cities and boost PNG’s rural economies. At the moment, crates of Kau Kau rot daily on the wharves in Port Moresby, while farmers wait days for their produce to hit the markets.

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BAPNG:  What were your favourite places to visit in PNG?

EW: I loved Manus Island.

I spent a good bit of time there over the years and it’s one of my favourite places in PNG. It’s so safe and the people are relaxed and go out of their way to make you feel welcome.

I was also very privileged to drive from Mt Hagen to Tari during the election, a two-day journey over the cracked and broken Highlands Highway. The landscape (lush green and very misty in places) made me home sick for Ireland. I’ve vowed to come back and do it again.

Oh, and Kokopo on New Britain. Spent my last weekend in PNG there. Stunning. More so for the volcano steaming in the background.

BAPNG: AAP has now closed its PNG office after nearly 60 years. Why would you say it’s still important for the world to know about what’s going on PNG?

EW: Since the O’Neill Government came to power, PNG has made efforts to engage more with the region. It is now an integral part of Australia’s anti-people smuggling policy, is donating election money to Fiji, providing UN peacekeepers and has close and growing relationships with both Australia and China. So, PNG is going to be important no matter how you look at it.

Also, the government is worth keeping an eye on. Haven’t met a government yet that’s done a good job while no one is looking.

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