CHEERING CROWD GREETS RETURN OF VANUATU PUBLISHER NEIL-JONES

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (January 22, 2001 - Radio Vanuatu/Trading Post/PINA Nius Online)---Vanuatu Trading Post newspaper publisher Marc Neil-Jones returned to Port Vila late last night to a welcome similar to that given sports heroes.

Despite the late hour, more than 200 supporters of Mr. Neil-Jones and the media were at Bauerfield International Airport awaiting the flight bringing Mr. Neil-Jones back from Brisbane, Australia.

They cheered, clapped and welcomed back the man deported by the Vanuatu government last Friday.

His return followed an order by the Vanuatu Supreme Court.

Acting Chief Justice Vincent Lunabeck issued an interim order that Mr. Neil-Jones must be allowed to return unhindered by the government to reside and continue with his business in Vanuatu.

This will allow Mr. Neil-Jones to challenge the deportation order in court on February 9.

Mr. Neil-Jones said he had no problems entering the country and he was very grateful for the local, regional, and international support he and the Vanuatu Trading Post are getting.

Prime Minister Barak Tame Sope -- who was overseas during the deportation action -- is expected to make a statement later today.

Two truckloads of police arrived at Mr. Neil-Jones' Port Vila home at 5:30 a.m. on Friday. The police took him to the airport, and put him on a flight leaving for Brisbane. They would not allow him to pack clothes or even take his medication for diabetes, he said.

Vanuatu Trading Post lawyer John Malcolm immediately appealed to the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Sope's government has been embarrassed by a series of investigative reports by Mr. Neil-Jones recently, revealing details about overseas businessmen with whom it is involved.

Mr. Neil-Jones, who is originally from Britain, arrived in Port Vila 11 years ago from Papua New Guinea, where he had worked as an executive with the Word Publishing newspaper group. He established the Vanuatu Trading Post in partnership with local investors at a time when Vanuatu had no non-government news media.

Opposition Leader Edward Natapei condemned his deportation as illegal, undemocratic and dictatorial.

He said the real reason for the deportation was that Mr. Neil-Jones was about to break news on a highly questionable deal between the government and an Asian businessman.

Mr. Natapei said transparency by the government is one of the fundamental principles of Vanuatu's Comprehensive Reform Program.

He said when the Vanuaaku Pati led the government it respected the work done by the Vanuatu media, particularly the Trading Post. This was because the people have a right to know what their government is doing, he said.

Vanuatu's Ombudsman, Hannington Alatoa, also protested against the deportation, saying it appears the government acted illegally and may have breached Mr. Neil-Jones' constitutional rights.

A statement from the Office of Prime Minister Sope said the government deported Mr. Neil-Jones based on various "negative and baseless reports" in the Trading Post recently.

It said: "(The) Trading Post publisher has been investigating the government of Vanuatu in almost every activity. Our information revealed that the Trading Post publisher has some sources in government who have been providing state secrets to him."

Pres Klab blong Vanuatu president Stevenson Liu said it is very concerned about the government action. It called on the government to use the judicial system rather than deportation if it was concerned about media reports.

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) said it is appalled by the way the Vanuatu government acted.

A statement from the PINA Secretariat in Suva said the deportation of Mr. Neil-Jones is a chilling threat to freedom of expression and information. It would be a real worry to both investors in Vanuatu and Vanuatu's development partners," the statement said.

PINA appealed to the Vanuatu government not to return Vanuatu to the grim days of the past, when there was no independent media and the government-owned media were under constant pressure.

It said Mr. Neil-Jones should be allowed to return to Vanuatu immediately and if the Vanuatu Government has any problems with the Trading Post reporting it should go to court with these concerns.

PINA said dawn raids and treatment like that Mr. Neil-Jones was subjected to are reminiscent of a police state.

PINA will be providing Mr. Neil-Jones and its Vanuatu members with support, the PINA statement said.

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

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