VANUATU PM SOPE REFUSES TO MEET DEPORTED NEWSPAPER PUBLISHER NEIL-JONES

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PORT VILA, Vanuatu (January 23, 2001 - Vanuatu Trading Post/PINA Nius Online)---Vanuatu Prime Minister Barak Sope yesterday refused to meet Vanuatu Trading Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones, whom the government deported last week amid controversy.

After returning to Port Vila from Brisbane, Australia, following a Vanuatu Supreme Court order allowing his reentry, Neil-Jones said he sought a meeting with Sope in an attempt to resolve the matter amicably and without going to court.

But he said Sope would not meet him and later cancelled a scheduled news conference where the Prime Minister was expected to face questions about the deportation of Neil-Jones.

Neil-Jones said he was told that there is going to be a government statement broadcast about the matter soon, over the facilities of the government-owned Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation.

He was also told that the Prime Minister's Office has been putting pressure on VBTC not to air or show any footage of his arrival back in the country.

Neil-Jones returned to Port Vila late Sunday night to a welcome similar to that given a sports hero.

Despite the late hour, more than 200 supporters and the media were on hand at Bauerfield International Airport awaiting the flight bringing him back from Brisbane.

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

His return followed an order by Vanuatu Supreme Court Acting Chief Justice Vincent Lunabeck. He ruled that Neil-Jones' must be allowed to return unhindered by the government and should be allowed a permit to reside and continue with his business in Vanuatu.

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

Two truckloads of police had arrived at 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.

Neil-Jones, who is originally from Britain, arrived in Port Vila 11 years ago from Papua New Guinea, where he had worked 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 Neil-Jones was about to break news on a highly questionable deal between the government and an Asian businessman.

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 Neil-Jones' constitutional rights.

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

It said: "Trading Post publisher (Neil-Jones) 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."

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) said it is appalled by the way the Vanuatu Government acted. It said the deportation of Neil-Jones is a chilling threat to freedom of expression and information in Vanuatu.

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.

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

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