Local journalists and foreign observers are watching carefully as the controversial sale of Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes continues to unfold. New negotiations have begun over the process of transfer of assets. Jamie Small reports for Asia-Pacific Journalism.
Journalists at New Caledonia’s only daily newspaper called off their industrial strike last week.
They have been concerned about the impending sale of their newspaper and – perhaps more importantly – the rights of journalists in the politically uncertain future of the French Pacific overseas territory.
On December 6, Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes published an article announcing that its parent company, Groupe Hersant Média, had put the newspaper up for sale.
The French company owns many media publications both in France and in foreign territories, but has reportedly experienced recent financial troubles.
The paper is expected to be bought by three businessmen who have ties to the loyalist Rassemblement-UMP political party opposed to independence.
Jean-Marc Bruel is an investment banker who in 2011 was indicted on corruption charges alongside Harold Martin, President of the government of New Caledonia.
Jacques Jeandot is involved in the importing of French automobiles to New Caledonia, and also owns printing presses and media publications in the country. As a part of the package sale of LNC, it is believed that Hersant will sell its two New Caledonian printing presses, IRN and Pacific Print, which may contribute to Jeandot’s growing media monopoly.
The third businessman is another investment banker, Charles Lavoix.
The sale price of LNC, along with a package expected to contain radio station NRJ and other New Caledonian media owned by Hersant Group is believed to be in excess of €16 million ($NZ 24.5 million).
The strike, which began on March 19, was suspended on Thursday following assurances that editorial independence would be preserved.
However, local journalists and foreign observers are watching carefully as the sale continues to unfold. On Monday, new negotiations will begin over the process of transfer of assets.
Questionable press freedom
Despite being a foreign territory of France, local media in New Caledonia is not widely considered to be free.
Mark Perkins, a librarian at the University of New Caledonia and a media watcher, says: “As for the ‘free media’ in New Caledonia, I think this is a bit far-fetched; given that we have only one daily, and the weeklies are very much more like party political weeklies.”
There are many examples in the past of anti-independence parties exerting political pressure over the media. In recent years, praise has been given to the rise of pro-independence media.
These outlets, such as the famous Radio Djiido, tend to be run by local Kanak people, who refer to New Caledonia by its indigenous name, Kanaky.
However, there is little politically neutral media in the country.
Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes has a history of being associated with the loyalist RPCR party. After a number of splits, the RPCR party no longer exists, though some previous members are now associated with Rassemblement-UMP.
In the 1980s, LNC printed a weekly supplement called Les Nouvelles Hebdo, which was unashamedly anti-independence. When the Hersant group took over the paper in the early 2000s, there was an editorial shift in the direction of neutrality.
This newfound “neutrality” is considered by many to be under threat, and Paris-based free press advocate Reporters Without Borders has been watching the sale carefully.
Johann Bihr, head of the Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders (which also deals with French overseas territories), acknowledges that LNC has a concerning political history, which has caused his organisation to take a keen interest in the sale of the paper.
“There was some concern of Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes getting closer to a political party,” says Bihr.
Goodwill press rights
Journalists in New Caledonia do not enjoy specific press rights. The individual rights of members of the press are simply governed by the collective convention on trade.
This essentially means that journalists have exactly the same rights as any other worker in New Caledonia. There are no particular rights or laws to protect journalists from political pressure or other hazards of the industry.
Media publications rely on the goodwill of their owners to maintain press freedom, rather than the essential right to press freedom enjoyed in many other countries.
“The status of journalists is not clearly stated in the Labour Code in New Caledonia,” says Marie M’Balla-Ndi, a PhD researcher into New Caledonian media.
“Journalists rights are quasi non-existent, and there is then very little potential for us journos to use specific legislation to defend ourselves if any unfair editorial pressure is applied. This is something that needs to change urgently, not only for journalists at Les Nouvelles, but all journalists in New Caledonia.”
In the Labour Code of New Caledonia 2008, in the section that deals with special provisions for certain professions, there is a chapter that deals with journalists, but the entire contents of the chapter is simply “No provisions.”
New Caledonia has a rocky political history, with many incidents of clashes between the local Kanak people and the French settler community. The most violent example of this is the Ouvéa massacre of 1988, in which French special forces killed 19 Kanak pro-independence militants.
The government in New Caledonia has long had ties with big business. High ranking public servants and politicians tend to be French expatriates with money, power and influence. This is typical of a small community, where people are often required to wear many hats.
The current ruling party, Rassemblement-UMP is an anti-independence party that wishes for New Caledonia to remain an overseas territory of France.
Their main opposition is an alliance of pro-independence parties called FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front).
The political scene in New Caledonia is heating up, as next year there will be a congressional election, and this congress will have the power to decide whether there will be a referendum on independence from France.
With so much at stake, political parties are doing all they can to get their message out. In such an important time, the position of the media is crucial.
Business and news
Bruel, Jeandot and Lavoix have assured the journalists of LNC that there will be no editorial pressure applied. However, these are businessmen who do not have a background actually working in the media.
Commentators are asking how the businessmen can be expected to understand the needs of journalists when they are approaching the purchase as an economic decision, rather than from the standpoint of trying to establish an objective, quality media publication.
Even with these assurances, the future of Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes is still apparently at risk.
Jamie Small is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.