NOOSA – If a government is ever involved in something, anything, and it looks like a stitch-up, then you’re right to assume it is indeed a stitch-up.
And here at PNG Attitude we assume that the Vanuatu government is guilty of trying to remove Daily Post newspaper director Dan McGarry from his job and from the country on a pretext.
Why? Because the government knows his journalism is telling the truth.
And we'll maintain this view until the Vanuatu government demonstrates it is innocent of charges of censorship, press suppression, heavy-handed treatment of journalists and abusing administrative law to get a truth-teller out of the country.
On Thursday, McGarry, a Canadian who has lived in Vanuatu for 16 years, had his work permit revoked by the country's labour minister.
The stated grounds: the government believes his position should be ‘localised’.
The unstated grounds: the government doesn’t approve of the newspaper’s coverage of its affairs.
“Our contention is that this is an illegitimate process,” McGarry told Guardian Australia. “It’s a straight up attack on the media.”
In July Mr McGarry had been called to a meeting with Vanuatu prime minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas.
“The prime minister summoned me and berated me for my ‘negative’ reporting. ‘If you don’t like it here’, he told me, ‘go home’. But Vanuatu is my home,” McGarry said.
In July the Daily Post had broken a story about Vanuatu deporting six Chinese nationals – four of whom had obtained Vanuatu citizenship – without due process or access to legal counsel.
The story opened with: "Under a veil of secrecy, China has convinced Vanuatu to enforce Chinese law within its own borders.”
McGarry said he was “quite confident” it was this series of reports which had upset the government.
As most media people know, when politicians begin to whine about negative reporting it usually means journalists are beginning to expose the truth.
Certainly the Media Association of Vanuatu and its 89 members understand what is going on.
“[We] maintain that silencing the media and journalists will only affect the good relationship media has with this government,” the Association said in a statement on Facebook.
“This relationship is at a level never before experience by media industry.”
The statement then asked the prime minister “to ensure Mr Dan McGarry has the liberty to pursue all the legal process available to him in order to have his valid documents organised”.
These documents relate to McGarry’s work permit, the renewal of which has been denied, it seems at the direction of the prime minister.
Meanwhile labour minister Muriel Meltenoven was sticking to her excuse that the decision to refuse the permit was based on rules promoting localisation of employment positions.
It was as flimsy an excuse as a politician could ever come up with to remove a media thorn without actually stating the journalist was committing a crime in reporting the truth.
The Media Association of Vanuatu reminded the government that it was sailing very close to violating McGarry’s human rights.
McGarry told Guardian Australia he believed he was being forced out because of the paper’s critical coverage of the government and accused the government of misusing administrative processes for political means.
When I communicated with McGarry yesterday afternoon to ask him to write something for PNG Attitude, he said he was too busy lodging his appeal to an independent panel of public servants which, he said, he “trusted would resist any outside influence”.
But he did say he would be “happy in the near future to submit something about the challenges Melanesian media face”.
McGarry told Radio New Zealand that if his appeal to the independent panel fails, his next step will be to take the matter to judicial review.
“We are willing to fight this out as long as it takes because the precedent that this sets not only for the media but all of Vanuatu businesses is quite dangerous,” he said.
"It basically allows the government to operate by fiat and that is not something that we can allow."
Personally for McGarry, who is married to a ni-Vanuatu, has children and considers Vanuatu his home, the denial of a work permit probably means he would need to leave Vanuatu to earn a living.
Presumably the Vanuatu government would want that.
It’s a cruel and unusual punishment indeed, more akin to a Stalinist regime that the benevolence, tolerance and kindness usually associated with the Pacific islands.
"I have spent all my years here in service to this country,” McGarry said. “I love Vanuatu. I can't imagine a life without it."