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By Alison Ofotalau

SUVA, Fiji Islands (November 1, 1999 – Wansolwara/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---Foreign journalists who have been reporting on the ethnic tension in Solomon Islands are being accused of lacking "respect and sensitivity" for the cultures and people affected by the conflict, reports the USP Journalism training newspaper Wansolwara.

General Manager Johnson Honimae of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation told Wansolwara this in an interview for a special edition on Pacific media.

He was supporting the controversial four-month-old "gag" on media, which lapsed last month.

Mr. Honimae cited an example of a report carried by an international news agency and published widely by other news media.

However, both the foreign correspondent involved in the cited story and the head of a recent Amnesty International report on the crisis have defended international coverage.

The news story reported a statement by Guadalcanal militant leader George Gray, who referred to Malaitans as "dog sperm" to express his hatred.

Mr. Honimae said the report "spread like wildfire" among the people.

"Overseas journalists don’t care what happens as a result of their stories," Mr. Honimae said.

Solomon Islanders living overseas faxed copies of the report to relatives and people they knew back home, and the news quickly spread.

"If that reporter was in Honiara, he would have been killed," Mr. Honimae said.

"I think we have more respect for our cultures and the way our people feel than foreign journalists, no matter how newsworthy a situation is, because we are the people on the ground, and we have to live there for the rest of our lives."

Michael Field, of Agence France Presse, one of three foreign journalists who were forced to leave Honiara as a result of the media restrictions in June, said it was "ridiculous" to blame journalists.

"Our job is to report the news, including the bad and unpleasant stuff that may offend people. Anything else is not journalism. Anything else is a case of killing the messenger," he said.

Mr. Field said the government imposed the media restrictions before the controversial George Gray remark came back to Honiara.

"The restrictions had absolutely nothing to do with the journalists - and everything to do with a government whose inaction had produced the situation they were in."

Mr. Field, a New Zealander, said foreign journalists were not reporting for an audience in Honiara.

"I was reporting for an international audience, trying to explain the scale of the problem. I could be sensitive about all this and leave my readers ill-informed and surprised when something actually happens.

"I reported it and have no regrets about it. It was such a gross, horrible thing to say and clearly explained the deep hatred apparently felt by one side toward the other.

"If being 'culturally sensitive' involves withholding information, then I do not want to be part of this. Remember people are being killed in all this. Where is the 'cultural sensitivity' in that?" he asked.

The head of Amnesty International's recent mission to the Solomon Islands, Heinz Schurmann-Zeggel, said the news from Honiara was at best "half the story," as there were hundreds of untold accounts of tragedy and heroism in the bush of Guadalcanal of cruelty and disrespect for human life.

"Such stories should be told, I believe, in a balanced and impartial manner, as a contribution to the healing of the victims' suffering on both sides of the conflict," he said.

"I don't think suppressing information will help solve any problems."

Mr. Schurmann-Zeggel said the local media did not provide adequate coverage of the unrest, but this was "understandable."

Mr. Honimae said it had never been the intention of government to impose restrictions on the media, but at the height of the tension government was wary of the kind of reporting that could be "culturally sensitive" - hence the media ban.

He added that it was also the failure of government in not telling the media and people what it was doing to address the situation from the start.

This in turn caused panic and led to the imposition of the media ban.

In replying to claims that the local media had not been doing enough to report on incidents of human rights violations, Mr. Honimae said it was just not safe to go out - especially in the bush of Guadalcanal.

"As an employer, I cannot risk the lives of my employees," he said.

"But we did carry stories on missing people and other atrocities committed by the militants and the appalling social and emotional conditions victims of the tension were in."

The ban quietly lapsed last month without being extended by Parliament.

Title -- 2425 SOLOMON IS: Honimae attacks 'wildfire' media Date -- 1 November 1999 Byline -- Alison Ofotalau Origin -- Pasifik Nius

Source -- Wansolwara, USP Journalism, 1/11/99 Copyright – Wansolwara Status – Unabridged

This document is for educational and research use only. Recipients should seek permission from the copyright source before reprinting.

PASIFIK NIUS service is provided by the niusedita via the Journalism Program, University of the South Pacific.

Please acknowledge Pasifik Nius: niusedita@pactok.net.au  http://www.usp.ac.fj/journ/nius/index.html

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