LEE DUFFIELD | Pacific Media Centre
When host country Nauru banned pool broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, from the Pacific Islands summit set for next month, the act was condemned widely as an attack on freedom of the media. Lee Duffield recently paid a visit to Dan McGarry, media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post, who took a lead in declaring his outlet would no longer attend.
AUCKLAND -The Vanuatu-based journalist who pulled the plug on the Nauru government for interfering with media freedom was having a typical full day at the office and elsewhere around Port Vila.
Time was being taken up by the major event for his newspaper’s market, of a Chinese goodwill ship in port giving out free health care to thousands of citizens and a revival of trouble over the earthquake on Ambae Island.
He had joined prime minister Charlot Salwai on board the hospital ship, Peace Ark, together with Chinese rear-admiral Guan Bailin, recognising the visit as both a community happening and another part of China’s highly active influence-building.
On Ambae, where thousands have had to be evacuated since the earthquake and volcanic eruption a year ago, talk of a need for fresh evacuations was being matched with criticism of government relief efforts by the Opposition.
Dan McGarry characterised this as a day in the life of a Pacific Islands journalist, something like the experience of a country journalist in Australia, where the audience, contacts, critics and personal friends are the same people.
Life is tough enough for many people in the small island states – or “big ocean” states, as some like to say – with limited development and economic opportunity.
Add in the deeds of political leaders across the region partial to power without much responsibility, standing on their dignity, adverse to free circulation of information and life gets more difficult for all — especially the small number of media professionals trying to get out essential truths.
Awareness of getting out the truth on government interference promoted McGarry’s decision early in July to cancel his media outlet’s participation in the coming Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru.
The Nauru government had announced its ban on a media pool for the summit of 1-9 September, because the joint broadcaster for the group was the Australian ABC.
Nauru said the broadcaster was biased against it; its coverage of a Nauru election was interference in domestic politics and it had given the country’s president tough scrutiny – “harassment” – evidently over issues linked to the asylum seeker camps there.
The ban was condemned by several Australian and Pacific media groups, including the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance and the Pacific Media Centre. The Canberra press gallery had considered a boycott, but News Corp broke ranks citing its dislike of the ABC.
In Port Vila, Dan McGarry was hearing advice from esteemed colleagues in his region that getting information was paramount, so never do a comprehensive boycott of an event.
McGarry’s response was defiant:
“That would apply with the Australian gallery together. But for outside media to take a position might have some additional effect. The Pacific Forum had been questionable to begin with. At the last Forum, in Samoa late last year, media access was severely restricted on any substantial stuff.
“Climate change was really the only issue, where the Pacific nations at the Paris Climate Change meeting had all wanted a standard of 1.5 degrees maximum warming, but this time failed to produce any consensus, not even a position statement.
“Considering media freedoms in the Pacific, it is not so bad here in Vanuatu. In other places, not so much. In Papua New Guinea they are compliant with government, a lot of information they are just not publishing, the Fiji Times is facing an existential threat and Nauru is a black hole.”
He also acknowledged the strategic role that has been played by the ABC and Radio Australia in preserving and getting out news.
“For following democratic norms, the ABC is one of our firm allies in the Pacific,” McGarry said.
“Without such a strong relationship we would not have any kind of regional news to speak of. We have relied on them to get out stories that we cannot safely publish, as in the past with physical attacks on our own publisher.”
(Marc Neil-Jones who, after several incidents in 2009 with editor Royson Willie, was assaulted after publishing on scandals in the prison system.)
“We could rely on them in a political crisis. It would help to have an ABC reporter in the room, and similarly they would not face political reprisals. We need them as they need us and I am on Australian radio on a fairly frequent basis.”
He said there was some hope the Nauru government might be getting prevailed upon by other governments to quietly change its position.
“They might be able to bring them back; it would be in the ‘Pacific way’.”