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The Dominion Wellington, New Zealand

August 14, 2001

The island states of the South Pacific are slithering down a slippery slope as, one after the other, they make life difficult for local journalists and ban overseas reporters. Latest to offend is Nauru, which has barred Agence France-Presse correspondent Michael Field from covering the Pacific Forum this week.

Commendably, Prime Minister Helen Clark has taken up the cudgels on Mr. Field's behalf. It may not suit some of the elderly Pacific island traditionalists, who control almost everything in their societies, to have the spotlight turned on their countries' shortcomings. But the long-term political and social cost of denying free expression is much higher than any short-term discomfort.

Mr. Field is no stranger to being barred from forum countries. Last year Kiribati refused him entry after he wrote "disrespectful" articles about pollution, sewage and litter on the main island of Tarawa. Tonga has banned him permanently for reporting on the democracy movement and the sale of Tongan citizenship to Asians.

The result is a double disservice to their countries -- by denying their own people a view from outside, and by stopping one of the few journalists specialising in Pacific affairs from reporting what is happening behind the facade of beautiful beaches, swaying palms and contented natives.

Tonga, for example, has a law that makes it an offence to make Cabinet ministers angry. When the acting editor of the weekly Tongan Times angered the police minister five years ago by suggesting he had been sparing with the truth, he was marched off to jail along with two people who had written critical letters. Three years later the editor, acting editor and an MP were jailed for offending the House -- an offence which the Court of Appeal later ruled did not exist.

The editor of the Samoan Observer ran foul of the Samoan Government in 1998 by reporting on high-level corruption and gross mismanagement, especially over loss-making Polynesian Airlines. A former prime minister was so stung by personal comments that the Cabinet made a huge fund available for him and other ministers to use for defamation in order to cripple the paper with costs.

The Fiji media is under constant pressure, whatever government is in power. Before last year's coup toppled Mahendra Chaudry's Labour-led coalition, it attacked the "arrogant" news media, and chased out the New Zealand chief of the national television station after only a month in the job. The Solomon Islands Government threatened to jail journalists who violated stern restrictions on reporting ethnic tensions. Papua New Guinea ministers have banned broadcasts that would embarrass them, and this year Vanuatu expelled a British publisher who alleged government involvement with shady foreign businessmen.

Aging leaders who argue that media freedom and Polynesian culture are incompatible should think again. Criticism should not be seen as an assault on the best interests of society: muzzling the media is the resort of failing leaders, not far-sighted ones. Miss Clark must find a way to emphasis the point in Nauru this week.

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