By Danielle Veivers
Increasing internet and social media use is forcing newspapers in Vanuatu to consider the future of communication.
The tradition of “coconut radio” in the villages, the mysterious and rapid transmission of news by word-of-mouth-and-thought, is taking up new electronic forms.
Vanuatu has 260 000 people, the Ni-Vanuatu, of whom 70% live in remote village communities on the 83 islands – with only five of those islands regularly receiving a delivery of hard copy newspapers.
The Editor of the Vanuatu Daily Post, Royson Willie, says communicating the news to remote areas can be challenging as many do not have internet access or a reliable mail service.
“It is challenging to send the papers to the remote islands as some need to be sent by planes which only go once or twice a week, meaning that the news is already out of date sometimes.
“Online news will not help these remote communities at the moment,” Willie says.
It is different in the capital city, Port Vila, on Efate island, where the Internet has begun to build up and intensify the rate of communication.
Yumi Toktok Stret, a local Facebook page discussing social and political issues, attracts over 13, 000 followers, with a lot to say
Mr Willie says it has 13000 users who “don’t hold back”.
Ben Bohane, Communications Director at the development agency, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PIPP), says social media is definitely making itself evident in the Pacific.
“Facebook is revolutionising the way that people absorb news and information. There are less barriers and it is less regulated,” Bohane says.
His CEO at the Institute, Derek Brien, says the shift toward social media may better inform citizens, with “a broader debate and a richer debate.”
Royson Willie says that as in larger countries like Australia, journalists are finding that social media outlets are a useful tool for gathering news.
“The Yumi Toktok Stret Facebook page mainly discusses Vanuatu issues and it is a good place for newspapers to source information.
“We find news stories there, and then check the information and make sure that we have all the facts and the true story,” he says.
Online news is changing the landscape for hardcopy publications in Vanuatu, whose main market is Port Vila.
Last week Marc Neil-Jones, co-owner of the newspaper, issued a statement on the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Facebook page urging people not to scan copies of the paper and display them online.
This post received mixed reactions from the page’s 2500 followers.
To overcome this issue the paper is creating an online platform for the daily publication; it plans to go live online by the end of the year, and readers will likely have to pay to access the digital copy.
Derek Brien at the PIPP says that online communication is the way of the future, and a force for freedom of speech.
“There is simply no widespread opposition to people having access to communication and technology,” says Brien.
He says since 2008 mobile phone usage is “close to saturation” in Vanuatu and allows remote communities to connect with the mainland through listening to the radio and inexpensive text messaging.
“The next big break is broader access to the Internet through mobile phones, but there is a long way to go for that in remote communities.”
Only 7% of the total Ni Vanuatu population had internet access in 2009, but the Vanuatu Government has shown strong support for increasing these numbers.
A 2009 Act committed to ensuring nationwide access to high-speed internet over the course of the government’s three year term.
Mr Willie, the sceptical editor, says that Vanuatu is yet to see the government uphold this commitment.
“We have had a promise for cheaper online connection but so far there is none and the Internet here seems to be getting more expensive,” he says.
Yet, he does say that while online and mobile communication so far is not providing stiff competition for the news in print, that day may not be far off.