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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (June 7, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---The people of Tarawa atoll eagerly await a free monthly campaigning political pamphlet, but if the government of Kiribati gets its way this Friday's edition could be the last.

"They're going to try and close us down," said Ieremia Tabai, publisher of Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) or "Pursuit of Truth."

Tabai, who retired as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 1998, has irritated the country's autocratic President Teburoro Tito ever since he returned home "to go fishing," as he said at the time.

Instead he started a newspaper, the weekly Kiribati Newstar (see: http://www.users.bigpond.com/kiribati_newstar/), and for the last two years has also run the monthly BTK.

"We write about ministers abusing their privileges and print stories about what they are doing," Tabai, 49, said.

"It is read widely and we distribute it around all the islands. People really enjoy it."

It's free and amounts to a "classic political pamphlet," he said.

But now the Kiribati Parliament is ready to pass a bill that could close BTK down.

Attorney General Titabu Tabane wants to amend the Newspaper Registration Act. When the bill is passed -- as Tabai believes it will be -- the State will have the power to strike off and close newspapers alleged to have not met a series of standards.

The bill, which is now before Parliament, requires publishers to print nothing which "offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling" and to present content with "due accuracy and impartiality."

Where an article "contains matters affecting the credibility or reputation of any person" the bill says publishers have to ensure they can respond in the same article.

Failure to comply could lead to a fine of 500 Australian dollars (US$ 287 US) or a publication ban.

The Kiribati government has denied the move is a back door attempt to stifle BTK, saying there had been "major complaints" about it.

It told PACNEWS agency it is "concerned about the detrimental effects that unlimited freedom of expression can have on the stability and peace of a nation and its culture, especially since there have been many incidents of so-called newspapers printing slanderous stories about ordinary people, outside the scope of politics."

It said the government "upholds the culturally and constitutionally enshrined freedom and rights" to scrutinize politics.

"But the Kiribati government is not prepared to allow unlimited exercise of one's right and freedom to violate the rights and freedom of others.

"The amendment that is being proposed is part of the Kiribati government's effort to incorporate some of its fine cultural values based on human supremacy and dignity, into the modern Kiribati society."

However, Pacific Islands News Association President Johnson Honimae said it was a "draconian" move and obviously intended to stifle freedom of expression.

Tabai, the founding President of Kiribati and now an opposition backbencher, has long been a thorn in the side of Tito, and was even jailed for a day for allegedly trying to run a radio station without a license.

Although Tabai has built a radio station, "Newair FM," Tito has for four years refused to allow him to broadcast even a single bar of music.

Kiribati has a land area of just 811 square kilometers (324 square miles) on 33 atolls, spread over 3.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) of the Pacific on the Equator.

The nation gained independence in 1979 and has a population of 94,000.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: [email protected]  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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