Clocking up years of trading in the islands, the Vinod Patel Group of companies is now looking at ways to monetise all those experiences and know how through its very own export business consultancy.
Calling it the Business Support Services for Pacific Islands, Fiji’s leading hardware and building material retailer aims to offer its many years experience of doing business in the Pacific to foreign investors who are – like them -- keen to do business in the islands.
“I mean we always talk about unique selling prepositions and I think that’s one of our major unique selling proposition in the export market. We can really stand behind a product and say we’ve tried it out, we’ve tested it out in our Fiji market. It works for our business and I’m pretty sure it can work for yours,” Vinod Patel’s General Manager of Exports Division, Atin Patel, tells this magazine.
“We want to reach out to the Pacific Island market and understand their business. Traditionally exports businesses are all about supplying products. But at Vinod Patel, we have changed our approach. We are helping them to grow and better their business by providing knowledge and know-how and also ensuring that we have necessary resources to support this. We are focused on providing this in the Pacific Island market because we are the same.”
Patel adds that for the past three decades Vinod Patel had gained a lot of experience exporting hardware, building products and tools to the islands of the Pacific. Vinod Patel & Co, has many reputable brands and lines of
products and services and being positioned in Fiji makes it an ideal export hub for many Pacific Island countries.
“As we’ve kind of gone through few phases of changes and growth we’ve become more than just about supplying items, we are now starting to act like business consultants to our customers who are merchants themselves. So we’re helping them in planning, helping them with inventory management, helping them with actually maintaining their stock. These are things we’re trying to do for them to run their business better.”
General Manager Sales & Operations for Vinod Patel Group Neelesh Pal Singh adds their export consultancy business is just one of the many new products the Fiji-based company is rolling out. In addition to supporting
exports in the islands, the group is also going big into harnessing technology including the Internet to reach a wider market.
One of the upcoming initiative is DIY – Do It Yourself Video production – short videos on simple, quick home and appliance repairs that home owners can do.
“Soon you’ll see a lot of DIYs videos available in our stores where we’ll educate our customers on how to do things themselves on their properties. That’s our major plan for 2019 and beyond,” says Singh.
“We have come up with our new e-Commerce website, and there are several marketing initiatives we have taken, especially in the digital space. We stock genuine products and supply only the best. Our products are branded, tried and tested and apt for our customers in the Pacific. That’s the edge we have.”
Adding more to that, Singh explains about the call centre. “We’ve got a very strong presence in the customer service area and we’ve got a fully operational customer care where we’ve got a group of very highly trained
team members who are interacting with customers, helping them solve their problems. Live chat and Facebook integration and everything so as we speak, it’s operational and happening.”
An exciting product Vinod Patel promotes is its container homes, because according to Patel and Singh, such homes are suitable to the islands.
“We’ve branded it as endless solutions because you could use it as your home, as a laboratory, as a field office, and evacuation center even. We’re doing emergencies as a portable nursing station, so anything you think of, you can fully customise it,” explains Singh.
“These are factory made, customised. It’s solid steel however, it comes with insulation which keeps you cool and you can have a 2 bedroom or 1 bedroom with kitchen facility, living room, a toilet, shower, everything.”
Construction time of such container homes Singh adds takes up to 3 days only, and reasonably priced. Atin Patel adds, that the future is bright for the leading hardware retailer with exports and the overseas markets holding the potential for more growth.
“We’re looking at expansions even locally and as we’ve pointed out our expansion into the Timor Leste market came about after we did our due diligence and we look at how we can get our brand name out there.”
Company Profile – Vinod Patel:
Named after the founder of the company, Vinod Patel Group is a family-owned business that first opened its store for trading in the Fijian town of Ba on the west coast of Fiji’s main island. It celebrates its 57th year of
operation in April this year. It stocks more than 25,000 different products with a workforce of over 1300 people.
VANUATU’S telecom regulator has welcomed the recent move by the ICAAN (Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers) to reassign to it the country’s country-code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) name DOT VU (.vu).
ICAAN manages Internet identifiers globally, including Top Level Domain names for countries and generic names like .com and .org.
Since 1995 and the early days of the Internet in the Pacific region, Vanuatu’s ccTLD had been assigned to Telecom Vanuatu Ltd (TVL) and has been the subject of an ongoing tussle for control between TVL and the Vanuatu Telecommunications Radiocommunications and Broadcasting Regulator (TRBR), which has finally been handed the mantle after ICAAN’s board meeting on March 14 in Kobe, Japan.
“These changes set the scope for a competitive market for .vu domain names,” TRBR said in a statement.
“TRBR has created an environment where multiple Registrars can make their own unique offerings and pricing for .vu names. TRBR wants to encourage the other local Internet Service Providers and possibly web designers to consider becoming Registrars or Resellers of .vu names. A strong collaboration between TRBR and the new Registry Operator is expected to lead to growth of the number of .vu names through international Registrars and resellers across the Internet,” TRBR added.
Over the years and without appropriate laws in Vanuatu, .vu has been at the brunt of domain name abuses, so-called cybersquatting – where ‘squatters’ register and buy domain names cheaply then resell them at higher prices. This emerged as a major concern for the tiny island nation in 2013.
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THE worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircrafts has prompted the Government of Samoa to defer the commissioning of its new Boeing 737 MAX 9, which was to have taken place next month (April 2019).
Recent air disasters involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 have forced the hands of airlines around the world to ground their aircraft, and prompted Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and China to slap a ban on the 737 MAX series in their airspaces.
“The crash of two brand new 737 MAX 8 within the span of five months has shaken the world of aviation and unless we have received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority and Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety, we will not bring that aircraft to Samoa,” Minister of Public Enterprises Lautafi Selafi Purcell told the Samoa Observer.
Last month, an Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 bound for Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six minutes after takeoff from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing all 148 passengers and eight crew members on board.
On October 29 last year, Indonesian airline Lion Air flight JT610 destined for Pangkal Pinang in Indonesia crashed 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport, killing 184 passengers and five crewmembers on board.
Both accidents involved a Boeing 737 MAX 8.
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AN oil spill in Rennell, Solomon Islands is turning into a disaster of catastrophic proportions, threatening the world’s biggest raised coral atoll and prompting caretaker Prime Minister Rick Hou to call for a review of environmental and mining laws on the eve of the national elections.
The spill began when the ship, the MV Solomon Trader ran aground a reef whilst loading mined bauxite in the area on February 5. The vessel, which was carrying nearly 11,000 tonnes of bauxite at the time, is owned by Hong Kong company King Trader and was chartered by Indonesian-based Bintan Mining to ship bauxite from its mining operations to China. Bintan, which is mining under contract from Asia Pacific Investment Development (APID) the mining lease holder, has already distanced itself from any liability for the spill, and allegedly continued to load bauxite even as the oil spread.
In mid-March authorities were reporting 70 tonnes of oil had been spilt. Approximately 600 tonnes of oil remained inside the ship, although it is now being transferred to safe tanks on a tank barge which had been sent from Vanuatu. Now the ship’s insurer, Korea Protection and Indemnity Club, says the spilled load may be greater than original estimated.
The MV Solomon Trader spill is on the doorstep of the Rennell Islands UNESCO World Heritage site, a 37,000-ha land and marine area extending three nautical miles to sea. UNESCO calls the site a true natural laboratory for scientific study, but says it is vulnerable to threats including mining and logging. “The ability of the traditional owners to adequately protect and manage the natural values and resources of the property is limited by a lack of funding, capacity and resources,” UNESCO says.
The spill has not only affected the livelihood of more than 300 people living in communities and villages in the area who cannot eat seafood, their main source of protein-but it has also threatened to destroy one of the country’s most important natural habitats.
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LATE detection and late presentation contribute to the high number of women who die from cervical cancer in the Pacific each year.
The HPV Information Centre reports that an estimated 1,268 Pacific Island women died from cervical cancer last year. The rate of diagnosis and death is highest in Melanesia, followed by Polynesia and Micronesia.
“The fact that it is curable and yet still able to claim a lot of lives in Fiji, across the region and all around the world is really saddening,” said Pacific Society of Reproductive Health President, Dr Pushpa Nusair.
In Fiji, cervical cancer is the third main cause of mortality in women; the leading cause of cancer death among reproductive women; and the leading cause of mortality in all cancer types.
“The biggest problem that we have in Fiji and in all the Pacific is that women tend to present us in the very latest stages where we cannot do very much for them,” said Dr Nusair.
She said by that time, medical officers can only offer patients palliative care.
Prevention and treatment of cervical cancer has been a stated priority of the Pacific Islands Forum for several years. Forum Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor has called it development issue, “albeit largely perceived as a women’s reproductive health issue.”
The World Health Organisation recommends vaccination against the cervical-cancer causing human papillomavirus (HPV) should be included in national immunisation programs, initially targeting girls 9-14 years of age, before extending to 9-18 years.
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FIJI, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu have been added to a European Union blacklist of tax havens. And despite concerns about process raised by all three countries, the EU has told Islands Business that these jurisdictions should not be surprised to find themselves on the list, “as they were given every chance to engage and address EU concerns.”
The countries were added to the blacklist in March, joining Samoa, American Samoa and Guam who were already on the list, but had been given a year to change their tax rules.
Calling the list a “last resort”, the EU states: “Over the course of 2018, countries were assessed on the basis of three criteria – tax transparency, good governance and real economic activity – as well as one indicator, the existence of a zero rate of corporate tax. This methodology is clear, transparent to all jurisdictions concerned and supported by all Member States. Our method is fair: progress made should be acknowledged and visible in the list.”
The blacklist, which was first established in 2017, subjects identified countries to stricter controls on transactions with the EU and reputational damage. It includes tax jurisdictions which are alleged not to comply with EU regulations. In effect, it means European banks must carry out extra checks and due-diligence on any transactions involving customers or other financial institutions in the listed countries and territories.
However Fiji’s Revenue & Customs Service has dismissed the listing as “largely symbolic” and says it will have virtually no impact on the minimal EU trade and investment in the country.
FRCS Chief Executive Visvanath Das claims the EU’s decision was based on the incentive package that Fiji uses to attract and cultivate new business, such as moving headquarters to Fiji. He says Fiji stands by this package, and that the EU did not take this into consideration during consultation on the issue.
In response the EU says while jurisdictions can design their tax systems as they wish, “not being in line with the good governance standards the EU is promoting, implies being included in the list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions.”
“Furthermore, Fiji’s commitment to comply with two articles under Tax Transparency and the implementation of the anti- Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) measures by the end of 2019 will continue to be monitored. BEPS refers to tax avoidance strategies that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to artificially shift profits to low or no-tax locations,” it says.
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SOLOMON Islands voters are on the verge of choosing their next government as the country goes to the polls amidst major economic and environmental challenges.
The 3 April election is a test of the country’s electoral system after the departure of the Regional Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). International support for the process remains, with the Australian Government committing around 100 police and military officers during the election period. The New Zealand Government has also pledged its support. The two countries took the leading roles in the Pacific Islands Forum-backed RAMSI.
At close of nominations, 335 candidates were confirmed, 310 of them men and 25 women. 15 registered political parties and many independent candidates are contesting the election. Women make up around 7.5 per cent of candidates, however they face a formidable task. There was just one woman sitting in parliament when the election was called, the independent member for Gizo/Kolombangara, Lanelle Tanangada.
The hot topic during the campaign for most Solomon Islanders is easing of the expense of daily living. Many are also angry about the tax-free salaries that parliamentarians receive. Last December the government announced it was doubling the minimum wage to SBD8 (US$1) in a move it hopes will play well with voters. The Central Bank of Solomon Islands put inflation at 3.7 per cent in January 2019.
Some candidates are promising more jobs by tapping into the labour trade with Australia and New Zealand. A much talked about newcomer to the political scene is Peter Kenilorea Jr, son of the country’s first Prime Minister Sir Peter Kenilorea. Kenilorea Jr, who is running under the banner of the United Party, spent close to 10 years working at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and returned to take the post of Permanent Secretary to Foreign Affairs for a year. However, the call of his father’s legacy has been strong.
Posting online after being welcomed by thousands on his arrival at Manawai village in the East Are Are constituency, Kenilorea Jr said: “A truly moving and emotional homecoming. They are looking for change. My message to them, I am ready. Together, we can.”
Other candidates believe the demand for change is rippling through the islands, from village to village and in the urban areas. “Our people are suffering now, we still have a shortage of medicine, proper health facilities and much needed infrastructure,” says Wendy Vahoe Amangongo, who is contesting the election as an independent candidate for Malaita Outer Islands constituency. The incumbent government and caretaker Prime Minister Rick Hou of the Democratic Alliance Party have also come under fire for their response to the Rennell Island oil spill (see our story on page 19).
Hou says mining companies, shipping operators and their insurers are to blame for the spill. However Amangongo claims this is but one of the many disasters that have befallen the country because of bad political leadership.
“Our leaders also just voted themselves a tax-free salary whilst our women, youth and children struggle everyday to survive the expense of daily livelihood,” she angrily says.
Interestingly this election, seven candidates are former Prime Ministers. One of them, Gordon Darcy Lilo has decided to re-enter the race saying in this campaign: “We must be able to put our house in order before we try and address external matters. That is the number one priority.”
Solomon Islands Transparency International is calling for Solomon Islanders to choose wisely.
Rising above the noise, a few facts remain. The government has committed to hosting the 2023 Pacific Games which will coincide with the next national general elections. The administration of government funds to develop the constituencies is in serious need of review and change. The tax-free salaries voted in by the previous house must be cancelled to ensure the trust of the people is restored. Immigration must be controlled with the influx of Asian and Bangladesh nationals flooding various industries with no check. The shortage of medical supplies in the hospital and clinics around the country is still a serious risk to ordinary folk. Roads, bridges, schools and basic infrastructure is still lacking on the ground.
With young people between the ages 15 to 35 being close to 67 per cent of the entire population of Solomon Islands, jobs are needed to engage the young, or Solomon Islands sits on a time bomb again.
AUSTRALIA and Vanuatu are slowly moving towards a bilateral security treaty after a series of meetings between the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of both countries.
Welcoming his counterpart Scott Morrison to Port Vila in January, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas stated: “The Australian Government continues to remain an important partner in police cooperation and security, both at the national and regional level.”
But the nuance is significant. Australia is ‘an’ important partner, not ‘the’ important partner, despite Morrison’s pledge “to reinforce Australia as Vanuatu’s economic, development and security partner of choice.”
Before leaving for Port Vila, Morrison stressed that the firstever bilateral visit by an Australian Prime Minister was part of his government’s renewed focus on the Pacific: “It’s part of our refocusing of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard and making sure we can make the biggest possible difference.”
Despite the positive dialogue over bilateral relations, trade, policing and security, it’s clear that the government of Vanuatu retains a strong commitment to its longstanding policy of nonalignment. During his visit to Australia in February, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu stressed that his country would maintain partnerships with both China and Australia, despite Canberra’s concern over growing Chinese influence in the region.
“We are happy to enter into a security agreement with Australia,” Regenvanu said. “We made it clear it won’t be an exclusive agreement, and we can enter into similar security agreements with other partners as we choose. We have these existing relationships and we would not want to cut them off by having to just rely on Australia. We would like all our partners to contribute in some way to our needs in this area.”
In January, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued the U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. The annual intelligence analysis stated: “China is currying favour with numerous Pacific Island nations through bribery, infrastructure investment and diplomatic engagement.”
Much as Canberra denies that a policy of strategic denial is driving its renewed engagement with Forum Island Countries, Morrison’s recent visit to Vanuatu and Fiji was driven by concern over China’s growing partnership with island neighbours. Canberra and Wellington are eager to show the Trump administration that they are active in a region Morrison has described, in typically patronising Australian language, as “our patch” and “our backyard.”
Relations with Vanuatu have much improved since last year, when Australia’s then-Minister for International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells condemned Chinese aid projects in Vanuatu and the Sydney Morning Herald published a series of articles about a purported Chinese military base in Luganville (claims quickly denied by Prime Minister Salwai and Foreign Minister Regenvanu).
The furore raised hackles on both sides, leading to a series of visits to reset the relationship. In June 2018, Prime Minister Salwai made an official visit to Canberra and then met informally with Morrison on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Port Moresby in November. Morrison’s unprecedented bilateral visit in January allowed Canberra to discuss a range of proposals, from a bilateral security treaty to increased labour mobility, trade and telecommunications links.
Morrison was accompanied by Senator Anne Ruston, Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific as well as Nick Warner, director-general of the newly created Office of
National Intelligence (ONI). A seasonal diplomat and intelligence co-ordinator, Warner has previously served as the first RAMSI special coordinator, Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism and head of Australia’s overseas spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS).
Just days after the Prime Ministerial visit, another delegation of senior security and intelligence officials travelled to Port Vila, before moving on to Tonga, Fiji and Solomon Islands. The delegation was led by the Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell, accompanied by Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin, Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram and Peter Vickery, Deputy Director-General of the domestic intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
During his visit, Prime Minister Morrison opened the refurbished Vanuatu Police College. Australia has also made commitments to fund new infrastructure for the Vanuatu Mobile Force and Police Maritime Wing, build a new police station on Malekula and provide increased training in Australia for Vanuatu police.
General Campbell also committed to taking Australian security engagement with the region to a new level, noting: “Defence plays a key role in this endeavour – we are and will continue to enhance our security cooperation with our Pacific neighbours, building on our existing and long-standing engagement, including under the Defence Cooperation Program.”
As part of the regional Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP), Vanuatu will receive a new Guardian-class patrol boat to replace an older vessel supplied under the Howard-era Pacific Patrol Boat Program.
On 7 February, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne then made a flying visit to Port Vila to meet Vanuatu Foreign Minister Regenvanu, just days before he travelled to Australia on an official visit.
Competing visions of security
Before leaving for Australia, Regenvanu spoke to Islands Business at his office in Port Vila, welcoming the increased engagement by Canberra.
“We’re delighted by the Prime Minister choosing to come to Vanuatu,” he said. “In fact it’s the first bilateral visit ever. I think the value of the visit was the inter-personal connections, much more than anything substantial.”
Regenvanu noted that the flurry of visits has furthered discussions on the bilateral and regional security agenda, even if the two sides are not in complete agreement about the content of a possible security treaty: “There’s a great deal more clarity now, especially on the Australian side, about our willingness to work with them on what we perceive to be security issues for Vanuatu. These include police and policing, intelligence gathering and maritime boundaries and – one of the main ones – responding to natural disasters.
“Subsequent to the visit, the Vanuatu Cabinet approved the establishment of a National Security Council for Vanuatu, the first time we will have one. That’s going to be established now to develop a National Security Strategy and Australia is particularly interested in resourcing the development of that strategy.” Reflecting the regional view that climate change is the greatest single threat to security, the new National Security Council includes the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, alongside chiefs and civil society representatives as ad hoc members.
As reported by Islands Business last May, Vanuatu will not give ground on its long-standing policies of nonalignment, demilitarisation and nuclear free status.
The leaking of intelligence on a Chinese military base in Vanuatu in April 2018 came as PNG Foreign Minister RimbinkPato was in Beijing, preparing for Chinese President Xi Jinping’sNovember visit to Papua New Guinea. The same month, RalphRegenvanu was at a Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Baku, Azerbaijan.
In 1983, Vanuatu was the first Pacific island country to join the NAM, followed by Fiji in 2011. At the 2018 Baku summit, the Vanuatu Foreign Minister stressed that his country is committed “to be non-aligned from major global powers, to free people from colonial oppression, to ensure international peace and stability, to champion human rights, and to ensure an inclusive and reformed multilateral order.”
Speaking at a public forum at USP Emalus on 8 February, Regenvanu reiterated: “In spite of competing interests, Vanuatu continues to uphold a non-aligned foreign policy which is most explicitly manifested in our principles and practice of denuclearisation and non-militarisation of the Pacific Ocean.”
Trade and climate
While welcoming Australian support for policing, intelligence sharing and maritime surveillance, the Vanuatu government stresses the relationship is part of a broader development partnership. For Prime Minister Salwai, “the Vanuatu Government continues to place a specific emphasis on increased trade with Australia, particularly, incremental increases to its export base and other initiatives….The Vanuatu Government also continues to value its participation in labour mobility initiatives such as the Seasonal Workers Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme.”
Successive Vanuatu governments have complained that Australia has restricted export opportunities through non-tariff trade barriers such as quarantine and phytosanitary controls. One long-standing grievance has been the ban on the importation of commercial quantities of kava to Australia, restricting a potential export earner for countries like Vanuatu and Fiji.
During his visit, Morrison made commitments to “progress” a pilot program to ease some of the limits on kava importation. However Foreign Minister Regenvanu told Islands Business there is still a way to go before the trade can expand.
“The kava announcement was very welcome, but we have to see how that goes,” Regenvanu said. “One of the main focusses of the Vanuatu government is to get something out of that announcement. We are working with our Australian counterparts to see how we can get something that’s real and tangible and makes a difference, especially for Pacific populations in Australia who are the main consumers of kava.”
Throughout his January tour, Morrison stressed his government was committed to stronger climate action. No one really believed him, given the Australian government’s reluctance to commit to faster reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and refusal to provide extra funds to the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
This refusal is in part driven by the belief that Australia should hold the purse strings, rather than operate through multilateral funds where developing countries have a say in the allocation of resources. In Port Vila, Morrison stressed that “the investments that we’re making to combat climate change particularly in the Pacific, is going to be done directly; not through third parties, not through global climate funds.”
With a possible change of government in Canberra by May and Vanuatu going to the polls in early 2020, finalisation of a new security treaty has a way to go. But whoever wins office, you can’t have a Pacific policy if you don’t have a China policy. Beijing will continue as a major player in the region and all Forum members will continue to grapple with this reality.
FIJI continues to mourn the death of three nationals who were shot while at prayer in two New Zealand mosques this month.
The men, 58-year-old Ashraf Razak Ali, 59-year-old Imam Haji Musa Patel, and 61-year-old Ashraf Ali, were amongst 50 worshippers killed at the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre. The alleged gunman, a 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, will reappear in court on April 5.
At the time of writing, New Zealand High Commissioner Jonathan Curr said his government was doing everything it could to facilitate the travel of the Fiji relatives and mourners of the three to Christchurch for funeral services.
Disturbingly, the accused gunman managed to livestream the first 17 minutes of the attack on Facebook Live. The video was removed, but versions of it continue to proliferate online, as it is reposted and reshared on various social media platforms. Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum told mourners at an interfaith service in Suva that the video was “revolting”.
Youtube and Facebook have defended themselves against accusations they didn’t move quickly enough to block the video’s spread. Facebook claims the live stream of the attack was viewed less than 200 times and non-live by 4,000 people before it was removed.
Facebook says 24 hours after the attack, it had removed 1.5 uploaded copies of the attack, blocking more than 1.2 million of them at upload. Youtube says it removed human reviewers from monitoring so that automated systems could take down more videos instantly, and that it shared information with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, so other companies could take the ‘original’ and edited versions of the videos down as well.
“The volume of related videos uploaded to YouTube in the 24 hours after the attack was unprecedented both in scale and speed – at times as fast as a new upload every second.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appealed to social media platforms to do more to combat terrorism. “They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”
Several New Zealand companies, including Westpac NZ and Lotto NZ, have suspended advertising on Facebook in response to the tragedy and the company’s handling of the aftermath. Tourism Fiji has postponed the implementation of its new ‘Bulanaires’ campaign in New Zealand in response to the attack. It has not ruled out using Facebook in delivering the campaign, saying “Tourism Fiji uses Facebook as a marketing channel with a large following on our FB pages and posts.”
While the attack shocked many Pacific Islanders, not only because of its proximity but also because of the perception of New Zealand as a peaceful and welcoming country, others were not so surprised. Pro Vice-Chancellor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, Paul Spoonley, says there is plenty of evidence of local Islamophobic views, especially online. Of a project he undertook last year to look at hate speech, Spoonley said: “It would be wrong to characterise these views and comments as widespread, but New Zealand was certainly not exempt from Islamophobia.” “There is also a naivety amongst New Zealanders, including the media, about the need to be tolerant towards the intolerant. There is not necessarily a direct causation between the presence of Islamophobia and what has happened in Christchurch. But this attack must end our collective innocence,” he said.
The shootings have also caused some soul-searching in Fiji, which has a history of ethnic and religious tension. Comments condoning the attacks and attributed to Fiji users were reportedly posted to the site. Fiji police say they are now investigating the alleged posts.
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said soon after the incident: “I call on all Fijians across all backgrounds and faiths to join me in making this pledge: Whenever you encounter someone who says something racist and hateful, whether it is online or in person, say something. Do something. Have the courage to call them out, and counter their hatred with reason. Be the voice of love. Be the voice of change.”
Meanwhile Fiji’s Hindu community led by the Sanatan Dharm Pratinidhi Sabha said it was cancelling Holi celebrations as a mark of respect for the Christchurch victims. Holi is usually a colourful celebration in Fiji as Hindus celebrate the victory of good over evil. In Auckland, the Pasifika festival was cancelled for safety and security reasons, as was the final day of the Auckland secondary schools dance festival, Polyfest.
Pacific leaders were quick to offer sympathy and support after the terrorist attack. PNG’s Prime Minister Peter said the “vicious attack” was “disgusting”, Nauru’s President and Pacific Islands Forum Chair Baron Waqa said “We are a Forum family and what affects one, affects all. The people of New Zealand are in our thoughts and prayers.” Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said: “We think also of our Cook Islands community in Christchurch and in New Zealand, with so many of our people who have made their homes there. New Zealand is home for all of us, and this despicable act will not change that feeling of closeness in us.”
IN 2017 the Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi reintroduced the Criminal Libel Act to combat online anonymity and ‘ghost writers’ such as the infamous ‘Ole Palemia’. Reintroduction of the act, which had been abolished in 2013, was justified on the basis of protecting individuals from false and defamatory online allegations, and in the name of peace and harmony.
Then last year the Prime Minister threatened to shut down Facebook completely in Samoa because of what he termed as “gutless anonymous bloggers” and their continued allegations. This threat was criticised by Samoans, with groups such as the Samoa Alliance of Media Practitioners for Development (SAMPOD) warning against the implications this could have on free speech and democracy.
Targets of the PM’s anger include anonymous blogger/social media poster(s) ‘Ole Palemia’. A woman detained for allegedly knowing the identity of ‘Ole Palemia’ but who was then released due to insufficient evidence, has filed a lawsuit against Samoa’s Attorney General and police. Meanwhile in February this year, Australian- based Samoan Paulo Malele, who is also known online as ‘King Faipopo’, was arrested when he returned home for his mother’s funeral. He faces charges of making threats on social media against the Prime Minister. Malele has been released on bail and will reappear in court in March. Social media activity has risen dramatically
in the Pacific with increasing connectivity and affordability of internet access. This has been aided by the proliferation of handheld devices providing more convenient access to the Internet and specifically, to social networking sites. Facebook is the most prominent social networking site in Samoa. Facebook analytics data estimate around 100,000 to 150,000 active Facebook accounts in Samoa within a period of a month. Active Facebook accounts in Samoa are comparatively between 60-70 per cent of Samoa’s estimated population. These estimates are for account holders with listed ages of 18 toover 65. Over 70 per cent of these active Samoa based account users are between 18-34 years of age, the ages covered by Samoa’s youth policy. In other words, Samoa’s youth population constitutes the majority of Facebook and online users.
Of the estimated 100,000 to 150,000 active Facebook accounts, around 52 per cent are listed as accounts for women and 48 per cent are listed as accounts for men. Samoa is somewhat unusual in this regard as in Melanesia for instance, there are more Facebook accounts listed for men than women. Around 85 per cent of Samoa’s total active accounts are situated in the capital of Apia. Over 87 per cent of Facebook access in Samoa has been facilitated through mobile devices, especially through android devices, which indicates the increasing use and affordability of mobile internet deals and gadgets.
These figures ultimately indicate that the expansion of social media in Samoa, much like in the rest of the Pacific, is inevitable and brings with it a wide range of implications. There’s a tendency for Pacific governments and leaders to react aggressively to these implications, with threats of blocking social media or with laws that seek to criminalise certain online activity. The risk of taking these reactionary approaches is to compromise free speech and expression, while wrongful arrests or arrests without sufficient evidence exacerbates the impression of an Orwellian-like state.
Old guards of Pacific leadership are now forced to face the brutal realities of globalisation and the digital expression of their citizens’ frustrations and outbursts. How this is handled by Pacific governments will test how willing its leaders are to evolve with the changing times and dynamics brought on specifically by social media. The onslaught of digital technologies is going to force Pacific governments to either adopt or adapt to these changes. Reactionary and ill-thought regulations that risk-free speech and citizen engagement, reveal more about the insecurities of government leaders than any purported benefit to democracy or peace and harmony of a society.