The payback beat: Ethnographic citizenship and the public kinship of indigenous subjects in postcolonial Papua New Guinea

The payback beat: Ethnographic citizenship and the public kinship of indigenous subjects in postcolonial Papua New Guinea

Ryan Schram

University of Sydney

February 14, 2019

A paper presented in The State and the Dynamics of Enslavement, a workshop held at Deakin University, February 13–15, 2019. Slides and paper are available at:


Unlike many postcolonial nations, Papua New Guinea defines itself through ethnographic citizenship in which members of its population are united in the empirical fact that they have an origin in some kind of indigenous society, rather than a common cultural tradition. In order to have standing in the PNG public sphere, people are required to produce knowledge of themselves as subjects of a integrated, functional social order. This poses an acute dilemma: one's inalienable belonging and enduring obligations to fellow members of a rural community—typically grounded in forms of kinship—are matters of public discourse, yet the preeminent value of relationships underlying these modes of sociality are potentially disqualifying stigmata in a liberal order. In this paper, I examine journalism for rural audiences in PNG as a site where alternative public discourses of collective life emerge. In Simbu Nius, a provincial news magazine, rural clans figure prominently as agents in local news events, yet the recognition of their reciprocal interrelationships is always haunted by the stereotype of tribal retaliation and so they remain precariously situated on the edge of the liberal public sphere. Keywords: media discourse, newsgathering, journalism, violence, stereotypes, Tok Pisin

The love gift

In response to a murder in Mount Hagen town in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Western Highlands Peace Committee was formed to raise funds for a “love gift.” They claimed that it was based on Highlands tradition, but stressed that it was not compensation.

“Love Gift,” a display advertisement placed in the PNG //Post-Courier// in response to the killing of Alan Mourilyan on April 2, 2004 (Western Highlands Peace Committee 2004).

Ethnographic citizenship in PNG

The dilemma of the ethnographic citizen

News discourse of PNG print journalism embodies the contradictions of ethnographic citizenship

Simbu Nius: A provincial newspaper from the PNG Highlands

Official and grassroots registers in Tok Pisin news reports of tribal fights

Official terminology reflects reliance on official sources

Grassroots terminology indexes the combatants’ perspective on violence

The compensation page

Simbu Nius also covers demands for and exchanges of compensation between rural hauslain, and in one issue grouped several articles in a special section: “The compensation page.”

The elements of a typical compensation article are:

Aglaiku and Kondoku, tupela lain wanpisin

In one article on compensation, the reporter quotes the “spokesman” for the recipients:

The reporter then notes that the public officials present then spoke with the Aglaiku group to avoid a fight. The next day, they returned to accept the money originally offered. The report concludes by saying:

Asking for compensation from the government

Another article on the “compensation page” reports a roadblock erected by a hauslain outside of Kundiawa, the capital of the province. It first quotes the “spokesman” for the hauslain:

And then quotes the reply from the elected premier of the province:

Kinship in public


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Fishman, Mark. 1978. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gigmai, Lawrence. 1988a. “Aglaiku Compensation Long Mingende.” Simbu Nius 2 (10): 21.

———. 1988b. “Vilis Blokim Haiwe.” Simbu Nius 2 (10): 22.

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