NEW WAYS TOWARDS INDEPENDENT MEDIA IN KIRIBATI

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By Erin Phelan

SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 11, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---It is fitting that New Star, Kiribati's new independent newspaper, was officially launched during Media Freedom Week 2000.

"It all started out of the basic belief that you can't have democracy without independent, private media," says former Kiribati president and co-owner of the New Star, Ieremia Tabai.

"Despite the good intentions of government, you need the independent paper."

New Star, a 16-page newspaper, publishes weekly on Friday in direct competition with the government-owned Te Uekera.

Circulation numbers are at 1,600, but Tabai expects that to increase as word of the independent paper spreads. The paper is predominantly in Gilbertese; Tabai says that the Kiribati people are more interested in reading news in their own language.

New Star is also doing what Te Uekera doesn't, he says -- distributing to the outer islands. Tabai says that reaching people in the islands was a priority, as people throughout the country -- not simply on the main island, Tarawa -- are interested in the news.

But Tabai doesn't think it will be long before government follows suit in the islands. "They don't like the competition," he said, pointing to what he perceives to be government's moves to block the establishment of New Air, Kiribati first independent radio station.

He has evidence that points to that aim. On December 8th, 1999 Tabai and a former Radio Kiribati program manager, Atiera Tetoa, were fined for importing radio communication equipment without a license. Tabai says that government was aware of the plans to set up independent media, and was not pleased.

The media are co-owned by Tabai, and Siau Smith, a Gilbertese woman married to an Australian, residing in Melbourne.

"I am on the wrong side of politics," Tabai said, now a member of the opposition. With the radio station stalled, the company launched the newspaper in order to get the independent media off the ground. They also have immediate plans to establish a website. Says Tabai: "We are aware of the need to be more modern in today's media world."

Tabai decided he wanted to set up the radio and paper after retiring as secretary-general from the regional Forum Secretariat. He knew it was the right time in Kiribati for this move. "People are very receptive to the paper," he said. "The head of Voluntary Services Overseas told me that her local staff are very keen to see the paper on Friday."

Tabai is still waiting for the license to import the transmitter, the only piece of equipment missing to launch the FM radio station. Government, he says, has been suspiciously silent in response to his repeated letters of request. When the station is up and running it will broadcast 24 hours during the weekend and "longer hours than government radio" Monday through Friday, Tabai says,

Tabai was in Fiji recently to meet up with media organizations, including the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA). PINA has issued several IFEX (International Freedom of Expression) alerts on the problems New Air has faced in Kiribati. Tabai believes it is important for his journalists to attend PINA media training in the region, and for the independent media to be fully supported.

"All media in Kiribati are controlled by the government. The paper and the radio will never put out anything critical of government, and if they do it is by accident. Recently a couple of items went out that were critical, and now the government is monitoring more closely," Tabai said.

Tabai approached former Te Uekera editor Ngauea Uatioa, after he retired from the government media, to see whether he would join the new independent media. Uatioa is now manager/editor for New Star, and Tabai says he is learning the difference between the two forms of media.

"He spent his life working with government, so he is cautious. But his attitude is slowly changing."

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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