The UN Human Rights Office has warned of “toxic lockdown culture” in a number of countries, with UN Secretary General António Guterres reminding governments that the threat was the “virus, not people.”
States of emergency have been declared in many Pacific island nations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with measures including curfews, border closures, internal travel restrictions and compulsory quarantine and self-isolation periods. For the most part, quick and decisive actions from our governments has borne fruit; many Pacific island nations have been spared from local COVID cases for now, and in others, the spread has been quickly contained . They should be congratulated for that.
However some of these government-mandated measures have been challenged (with varying results), for example in courts in Guam, French Polynesia and Fiji.
Meanwhile, there have been challenges to the notions of media freedom in several jurisdictions.
To scrutinise, question and unpack government policies, and the rationale behind them, is the job of the media. They’re not acting this way because they are evil, but because the ability to question, debate and understand is integral to a healthily functioning society.
Vanuatu Daily Post journalist Dan McGarry has been stopped from re-entering the country by Vanuatu immigration officials.
McGarry was until recently, the Media Director for the Daily Post. However the government earlier this month refused to approve his annual work permit renewal. He says this is due to the newspaper’s coverage of Vanuatu’s relationship with China.
Originally from Canada, McGarry is in the process of applying for dual Vanuatu citizenship.
He had been in Brisbane, Australia for a week with his partner. But when they tried to check in for a flight back to Port Vila on Saturday, they were told that Vanuatu Immigration had issued a notice barring the airline from uplifting him. His partner had to return home to their two children alone.
“Repeated attempts to obtain a copy of Vanuatu Immigration’s letter to the airlines were unsuccessful,” McGarry says. “How can I comply with Immigration’s demands if they won’t tell me what I need to do? I feel like a character in Catch 22.”
“They’re doing what every guilty-minded government does when faced with inconvenient facts: they’d rather shut me up—and shut me out—than engage honestly with the public about the stories we report.”
Last week in a broad-ranging statement about the state of media freedoms and threats in the Pacific, the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum called on the Vanuatu government to uphold the appeal of the Daily Post against the rejection of McGarry’s work permit.
Two days after terminating his employment, Papua New Guinea’s EMTV has re-instated News and Current Affairs manager Neville Choi, and he says he will be back at work this morning.
Choi was sacked for what EMTV management alleged were human resources breaches.
However the action against the respected journalist created a storm of protest from his local and international colleagues and EMTV viewers.
The President of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), Kora Nou had urged the parties in to quickly meet and resolve the issue, and offered to act as a mediator.
The Pacific Freedom Forum, a media rights watchdog, took a stronger line: “We stand in solidarity with Neville, who is a well respected and leading Pacific journalist who has mentored and trained journalists across his nation. We also call on PNG Communications Minister Renbo Paita --given his powers over board appointments for EMTV's parent company-- to support a swift and independent mediation between all parties to resolve an escalating issue ,” said PFF Chair Bernadette Carreon of Palau.
“Our concern at this time is that a quality news service cannot be suspended because news workers feel intimidated, unheard and unable to report without fear or favour, in the current environment,” says Melanesia PFF co-chair Ofani Eremae of the Solomon Islands.
Senior members of the EMTV newsroom, including Meriba Tulo- the journalist named to replace him, called for his re-instatement and asked that EMTV’s Acting CEO be sidelined, as they “no longer have confidence in her leadersihip.”
In a statement, newsroom leaders Tulo, Scott Waide and Sincha Dimara said: “The action to terminate Mr Choi is one that is wrong, and in direct challenge to the separation, and indepdence of the News Media Code of Ethics.”
Their support for Choi meant there was no news bulletin aired on Monday night.
EMTV's coverage of expenditure related to last year's APEC meeting and industrial action by the PNG Defence Force raised the government's ire.