The reporting on the tragic confrontation between students and police at the gates of the University of Papua New Guinea on Wednesday reminded me of a comment made some years ago when I was covering a landslide in the PNG Highlands.

Initial reports out of Port Moresby this week quoted students as claiming police had shot dead four unarmed students. By the evening news, the number who died was back to zero, although at least seventeen were wounded.

The comment in relation to the Highlands landslide was that Papua New Guinea must be the only nation in the world where the death toll falls rather than rises as more information becomes available. That is not always the case, of course. My early reports on the Aitape Tsunami on the north-west coast of PNG in 1998 had eleven dead, but that rose to well over two thousand as we found out more about that terrible disaster.

What is going on in Papua New Guinea at the moment is tragic. And if the trouble spreads through the Highlands it will become very messy.

Peter O'Neill is not the quintessentially evil character his critics brand him as. But by closing down Task Force Sweep (which he had set up primarily to tackle corruption) and refusing to allow the police to question him over serious corruption allegations, he has allowed the perception to become common belief that he has placed himself above the law.

That is very dangerous in a country like Papua New Guinea, which is teeming with people with a grievance.

It is indicative of how few Australian journalists have any real knowledge of PNG that Rowan Callick had to write an analysis item for The Australian from Beijing, where he is once again the China correspondent. The Brisbane Courier Mail is so short of people who know anything about PNG that one of its headline writers decided the shootings had happened in the Indonesian province of Papua, not Papua New Guinea.

In the first few hours after the initial reports of the police shootings reached Australia, I was inundated with calls from the ABC to go live on various programs to comment. I declined, saying I did not feel I knew enough about what exactly was going on.

 

It concerns me that much of the reporting said the students were 'unarmed' and 'innocent'. I am sure some of them were, and my sympathy goes to those wounded. The use of live rounds by the police is appalling. But I have covered enough demonstrations in PNG to know that, when it comes to violent confrontations, 'innocent' is not a complete description for those on either side.

The students have been striking for weeks and were about to be bussed to the Parliament to demonstrate in support of Opposition attempts to bring on a No Confidence Motion against Peter O'Neill. O'Neill has the numbers to defeat such a motion at present, and there are those who are desperate to foment chaos to bring him down anyway they can.

Back in 2001, several university students were shot dead in Port Moresby in a confrontation between police and students protesting over the Mekere Morauta Government's implementation of an economic stringency program recommended by the World Bank. One report back then claimed Morauta was the one to blame and that it was 'PNG's Tiananmen Square'. It was not.

That comparison was raised again this week. Again, I cannot see the similarities.

Photo: Getty Images/PNGFM News