PRESS FREEDOM REPORT ON PACIFIC

PARIS (RSF/Pacific Media Watch): Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently published its annual report on press freedom violations in 2002, citing conditions in 156 countries.

The Paris-based organization called current world conditions "dark times for press freedom," noting events of the past few weeks, including nine journalists killed in Iraq and 26 arrested and sentenced to prison terms in Cuba

In the Pacific, developments were mixed, ranging from New Zealand’s open door policy to the tightly controlled media of Tonga. Following are highlights of the report on the Pacific region.

 

FIJI

 

Fijian journalists have recovered the freedom to speak out that they lost at the time of the May 2000 coup d’état. But the government kept its television monopoly and stake in several newspapers, including the Daily Post and the Sun. Repeated threats against journalists by politicians showed that press freedom was not truly accepted by the political class.

Plainclothes police searched the house and office of Usman Ali, correspondent of the Daily Post in Lautoka (west of the capital, Suva) on 14 April 2002, saying they were looking for documents about the government firm Airports Fiji.  Ali had written an article a few months earlier based on an official report. He refused to say where he got the report

The Daily Post reported on its front page on 22 April that its reporter Josephine Prasad had been threatened with arrest by Criminal Investigation Director Emosi Vunisa if she did not hand over documents and disclose her sources about Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini, an exiled former rebel army officer. The day before, she had written in the paper that an Interpol agent had been sent to the United States to bring him back to Fiji in connection with his part in the May 2000 coup d’état.

Rebel soldier Filimoni Tikoti was charged in May with attempted murder for firing a gun at reporter Jerry Harmer, of Associated Press Television News (APTN), during the 2000 coup d’état. By the end of the year, the trial had not begun.

Assistant works minister Simione Kaitani made an attack in parliament on 25 July on the local media’s coverage of the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific summit being held in Fiji, accusing the press of supporting the opposition and destabilizing the country instead of reporting fairly on the summit. He said there was collusion between the media and demonstrators, which showed there was a plot against the government.

Government senator Mitieli Balaunauca called journalists "mad crazy loonies and stupid people" as well as being "agents of Satan" on 29 August and accused editors, publishers, reporters and advertisers of being racists and naive amateurs undermining the fabric of life in Fiji. Four days earlier, another senator, the Rev. Tomasi Kanailagi, former head of the Methodist Church in Fiji, accused the daily paper Fiji Times and TV station Fiji One of being "agents of evil" for reporting lax accounting by the Methodists. The Fiji Times had also run several strong editorials about the practice of "tithing" by the churches. Also in August, one of the paper’s photographers was roughly evicted from the Methodist annual conference in Suva.

The High Court rejected on 7 December a request by the Suva prosecutor to ban media coverage of the trial of nationalist politician Viliame Savu and journalist Jo Nata for supporting the 2000 coup d’état by businessman George Speight. The request was accompanied by copies of what the prosecutor said were offensive reports by the Fiji Times, the Daily Post and Fiji Television.

 

Kiribati

 

The government pushed through a controversial press law amendment in the face of domestic opposition and also criticism by international press freedom organizations. It allows the authorities to cancel media operating licenses if a complaint is filed, opening the way to censorship. The privately-owned media is meanwhile growing slowly.

Parliament approved amendments to the press law in October despite objections by the opposition and international press freedom bodies who saw it as an effort to stifle criticism of the government.

The so-called ³Titabu Tabane² bill, sent to parliament on 30 May and approved on second reading on 7 October, allows the Newspaper Registration Office, whose head is to be appointed by the government, to shut down any publication against which a complaint was filed. It also requires media proprietors, editor and printers to publish nothing that ³offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or be offensive to public feeling.²

Published material must be presented with ³due accuracy and impartiality² and when an article ³contains matters affecting the credibility or reputation of any person,² they must be able to respond in the same article. Defiance of these requirements or continuing to publish after cancellation of an operating license will be recognized as an offence while persistence in this will draw a fine of 300 euros.

The government said the measure was to combat a growing number of ³libellous pamphlets,² but opposition politicians feared an attempt to gag them and said it was aimed at the country¹s only independent paper, Kiribati Newstar, published by former President Ieremia Tabai, which competes with the government paper Te Uekera. The amended press law caused the media to water down its criticism of the government during the campaign for the 29 November general elections. The government authorized on 14 December the opening of the country¹s first independent radio station, FM 101. Its owner, former President Tabai, owner of Kiribati Newstar, had been asking for a broadcasting license for four years.

 

New Zealand

 

New Zealand has one of the world¹s best records on press freedom and no violations were recorded in 2002. However, in the Cook Islands, a self-governing associated state with New Zealand, freedom of expression was less respected. Piho Rua, chief adviser to the Cook Islands prime minister, returned from an official visit to South Africa on 12 September and said the government should look to Zimbabwe¹s press law as a way of controlling the media. He said there was too much inaccurate news going around without any restriction or risk of punishment.

 

Papua New Guinea

 

The media are fairly free, but in 2002, the government barred the entry of foreign journalists, mostly Australians, to prevent them reporting on a refugee camp set up in the country by Australia, and on the situation during general elections.

The foreign ministry began systematically refusing visa applications from foreign journalists from March 2002 without explanation. Australian photojournalist Mathias Heng was one of them. Greg Roberts, of the Sydney Morning Herald, was the first reporter to reach the refugee camp on the island of Manus, using a tourist visa and pretending to be a birdwatcher. Soon after getting into the naval base where 360 asylum-seeking refugees, 80 per cent of them Iraqis, were being held, he was expelled by private security guards headed by a former Rhodesian policeman. The next day he was told the Papuan police and army were looking for him and left the island soon afterwards.

Papuan foreign ministry official Lawrence Bunbun admitted that the Australian government had asked for all access to the refugees be refused on the excuse that their identity had to be protected. The camp was entirely funded by Australia, which refused to allow new refugees into its own territory. Doctors in nearby hospitals said some of the refugees had caught malaria and others had tuberculosis and typhoid.

Evan Williams, of the Australian TV station ABC, attacked the Papua New Guinea government, in a program on 17 April, for continuing to refuse journalists entry to the country because of the Manus camp. He had managed to take pictures of the camp after getting into the country secretly.

Visa applications made by journalists several weeks before the June general elections were processed very slowly by the foreign ministry. The regional press freedom body Pacific Media Watch criticized the hostility of the authorities towards journalists. Two days after the elections, which were marred by many violent incidents, former Prime Minister Bill Stake appealed to the international community to persuade the government to drop its ban on foreign journalists.

A soldier threatened to kill Robyn Sela, an investigative reporter with the daily Post-Courier, on 4 October while she was at a barracks in Port Moresby. The soldier objected to articles she had recently written about defense secretary Fred Punangi, who had been accused of embezzlement. ³We¹ll get you,² he told her, before an officer intervened. Three days later, the army command told the press that military police were trying to identify the soldier and that he would be punished.

Kevin Pamba, an academic and contributor to the daily paper The National, was attacked and threatened on 27 November at a police station in the northern town of Madang. He had been arrested for questioning about an article reporting an eviction police had carried out. They accused him of giving them a bad name with their superiors and demanded a front-page apology or else they would sue for libel. He said one of the police threatened twice to slash his face with a knife. He was freed when an inspector intervened and had cuts and bruises.

 

Solomon Islands

 

Physical attacks on the country¹s few independent journalists are common, although the political situation has calmed down in the past two years or so.

Eight drunken people burst into the offices of the country¹s only privately-owned daily, The Solomon Star, in the capital, Honiara, on 24 January 2002 and demanded 1,000 euros from the staff. They said they had been sent by economic reform minister Daniel Fa¹afunua and accused the journalists of reporting that he had punched a taxi-driver in Honiara.

The men took the staff, including editor John Lamani, to a warehouse converted into the headquarters of the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) militia where the minister, also drunk, was waiting. He took the money from the journalists and threatened them with more reprisals if they continued to publish the paper. Savea Sano Malifa, editor of the Samoa Observer and a well-known Pacific region journalist, denounced on 23 February the government¹s failure to arrest the minister and his henchmen.

Foreign minister Alex Bartlett asked the country¹s journalists on 11 February to be patriotic and not report on the government¹s internal problems so as not to give the country a bad image and risk scaring away foreign aid.

A group of people went to the offices in Honiara of the public radio station Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) on 26 May, threatened journalists and employees, smashed a glass door and damaged computer equipment. The attack came a few days after the station reported that some paramilitary police had refused to take part in a ceremony at which officers gave up their weapons. All the country¹s militias were to hand them in before 31 May 2003 under a 2001 peace agreement.

 

Tonga

 

The king, who has been in power in since 1965, his Prime Minister Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata and their supporters harassed the independent newspaper Taimi'o Tonga and the political weekly Kele'a, edited by the country¹s best-known rising politician.

Akilisi Pohiva, editor of the political newsletter Kele'a, and his Human Rights and Democracy Movement won a landslide victory at elections in March 2002 on a platform of moving towards a constitutional monarchy. But he was unable to take power because the island¹s inhabitants are only allowed by the monarchy to elect nine of the 30 members of parliament, the rest being noblemen allied with the king.

Royalists circulated a petition in late January calling for the country¹s only independent newspaper, Taimi'o Tonga (Times of Tonga, published in New Zealand) to be banned. Editor Mateni Tapueluelu said members of the Kotoa Movement, which is headed by the king¹s daughter, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, was behind the move.

The monarchists said the paper was crude and disrespectful, gave a bad impression of Tonga and that its reporting of events threatened the social order. They also charged that it made a lot of money but did not constructively support the monarchy. The pressure on the paper came after Kele'a, then Taimi'o Tonga and then the regional media reported that the king had more than $350 million stashed away in banks abroad.

Tapueluelu announced on 4 March that he had been charged with libelling the king for reprinting the story in Kele'a. The government at first denied the accusation, but then the king admitted he had a bank account in Hawaii. Tapueluelu said he had printed the article because it was a matter of public interest. He was summoned before a court in the island capital, Nuku'alofa, but no verdict had been announced by the end of the year.

One of Taimi'o Tonga¹s reporters, Laucala Pohiva, was charged with using forged documents, and was briefly arrested on 25 February with her father, Kele¹a editor Akilisi Pohiva, and another politician. The family said her house was searched and papers seized.

Akilisi Pohiva had been arrested in 1996 with Taimi'o Tonga¹s publisher, Kalafi Moala, and journalist (later editor) Filokalafi 'Akau'ola, and sentenced to a month in prison for insulting parliament by reporting that a motion of censure had been drafted against a royalist minister.

In August 2002, Moala accused the monarchy, in a book called ³Island Kingdom Strikes Back,² of hounding political dissidents and the independent press, especially his newspaper, and noted that the authorities habitually made excuses, such as economic development or national security, for curbing press freedom. He criticised the public media for often failing to print news when it displeased the authorities.

On 12 December, the supreme court ordered the government on to pay 25,000 euros in damages to Moala and 'Akau'ola for wrongful imprisonment in 1996.

May 6, 2003

Reporters Without Borders: http://www.rsf.org 

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