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23 Mar 2018 18:11
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  •   Home > News > Politics

    Pacific islands governments move to curtail free press as local media figure issues call to arms

    A high-profile Pacific media figure calls on journalists in the region to defend themselves against threats to free press from governments.

    A high-profile media figure in the Pacific has issued a call to arms to journalists around the region to defend themselves against government onslaught on press freedom.

    Dan McGarry, media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post, said the ability of journalists in the Pacific islands region to do their job without government interference was in danger.

    In Papua New Guinea, a reporter from the Post Courier was recently physically assaulted by a Governor's office staff member.

    The country's media council warned during last year's elections that free speech was "under attack" after media were banned from a main counting venue — the electoral commissioner obtained a court order against blogger Martyn Namorong for criticising the handling of the elections.

    In Fiji, the editor and publisher of the Fiji Times are facing sedition charges, while two employees of Islands Business magazine in Suva were detained and questioned by police over an article they published.

    The Kiribati Government barred foreign journalists from entering the country to cover the recent ferry disaster.

    Mr McGarry said the straw that broke the camel's back was the news about the detention of the Islands Business journalists.

    "This is a business story and yet the Government of Fiji thought that it was somehow within its rights to accuse these people or at least to say they were under suspicion of incitement to sedition, which is [an] absolutely draconian law and has no place in a democratic society," he said.

    The managing editor of Islands Business, Samisoni Pareti — one of the two employees taken in for questioning — said the incident would have a chilling effect on other reporters in Fiji.

    "It certainly will force journalists to be more and more careful, and I hope it won't force journalists to just shut up and not report on the news," he said.

    "There's certainly fear, and there are people in this country who see this as just sheer intimidation tactics by the authorities."

    Mr Pareti said the Fiji Government would often not respond to the media, hoping that by not speaking to reporters, they would not run news stories.

    Ewan Perrin — the Permanent Secretary for the Fiji Department of Information and Communications in 2016 — backs Mr Pareti's claims.

    Only 100 days into his appointment, Mr Perrin quit, claiming he was told by a Government adviser not to respond to certain media outlets.

    "I wouldn't call it an official blacklist, but there are media organisations and individual journalists who I was encouraged not to speak with, including ABC, particularly Pacific Beat — but also Fiji Times, and Radio New Zealand."

    Pacific press accused of being 'unfair'

    Some political leaders feel the media in the Pacific does not always act professionally and truthfully, warranting restrictions.

    Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, admitted he was tempted at times to hit back at what he felt was unfair treatment at the hands of the press.

    "[One] newspaper … was particularly antagonistic towards me," he said.

    "There was a lot of temptation to try and do something about it, but I never, ever really thought seriously about shutting it down."

    Mr McGarry said governments often complained about journalistic bias, but the charge seldom stood up to scrutiny.

    "We [in Vanuatu] take great pride in our willingness to publish without fear or favour," he said.

    "When you hear these cries of bias, it tends to be when somebody has found themselves on the wrong end of a story, when the facts, in other words, are not in their favour … that has existed forever and it probably will exist forever.

    "The difficulty is maintaining the professional standard in order that we can say, hand on heart, that we have actually acted in good faith and that we have not bowed to pressure."

    In Fiji — the Pacific nation with possibly the worst reputation for lack of media freedom — the head of the official media watchdog, the Media Industry Development Authority, Ashwin Raj, said the media needed to understand there were limits to the right of free speech, especially in a developing nation with communal tensions.

    "When you report on stuff that has the effect of inciting communal antagonism, racial and religious ill-will, I mean given our history, I think we ought to be a lot more sensitive when we report on these things," he said.

    Samoa is high in press freedom rankings compared to other Pacific countries, but one mainstream newspaper journalist highlighted the approach of one Samoan blogger as putting that freedom at risk.

    The editor of the Samoa Observer newspaper, Mataafa Keni Lesa, said the blogger, known as Ole Palemia, accused the Government and Prime Minister of corruption — but the way he did it was not helpful to the cause of media freedom.

    "I can definitely say it [was] very sensational," Mr Lesa said.

    "Where I think I personally draw the line is when he gets into people's personal lives and their children and their families and I find that very concerning."

    Pacific governments desire to control international media

    Mr Tong said the recent ban on foreign journalists entering the country to report on a ferry disaster was put in place by officials who felt they needed to control what was said about the country.

    "These small governments like Kiribati — that lack the capacity to interact with international media — feel they have no way to control what the foreign media comes up with," he said.

    "Of course they have absolute control with the local media because they can always shut it down."

    Former Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste, now a journalism educator at the University of Queensland, warned that threats to robust independent journalism were a threat to everyone's freedoms.

    He believed it vital that people realise politicians are public servants who work for them.

    "Once we understand that fundamental relationship, we're in a much better position to argue for the protection of a free press," he said.

    "We need to constantly remind our politicians that any curtailing of a free press is a step too far."


    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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