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Allow media to help shine a light on Pacific issues

If Pacific countries want the world to take notice of their situation, they need to stop obstructing and silencing media, writes Laura Walters.

The Pacific is on the frontlines of the biggest battles facing this generation.

I’m obviously talking about climate change, but also: commercial development that threatens the environment; the security and financial dangers that come with superpowers jostling for influence; high rates of infectious and non-communicable disease; and there’s the corruption.

The New Zealand Government understands the importance of the Pacific, and knows it needs to have more of a voice in the region going forward.

So good on Winston Peters for launching his Pacific Reset, backed up with a boost of more than $700 million boost in Official Development Assistance (ODA) spending.

Peters and Jacinda Ardern have also used their political force to magnify the voices of the Pacific; drawing the world’s attention to the issues the region faces, and advocating for action from the international community.

But it’s hard to inspire global action when some of those island states don’t seem to want the full story to be told.

Don’t get me wrong, Pacific leaders travel to international summits and forums, stand at podiums and talk about their countries’ climate and security.

But journalists who cover the region face being stonewalled by skittish or corrupt administrations.

I had a small taste of this when I travelled to Kiribati to report on climate migration last year.

As the trip was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Pacific Journalism Grant, I made sure to carefully follow the extensive research and reporting visa process.

It required me to provide details of travel, accommodation, planned coverage, a CV, and a promise to provide the Government with copies of published material. This all had to be signed off by the Office of the President.

Officials warned me the Kiribati Government had become increasingly wary of foreign media since a fatal ferry sinking earlier in the year.

The next day, police lights flashed in my rearview mirror. An officer pulled me over, and as a crowd of locals gathered around my rental 4WD, he told me I’d breached my visa. He was there to escort me to immigration.

At the time Newshub reporter Michael Morrah and his cameraman had their passports confiscated, and were forced to hand over interview footage. They were told the Government didn’t want foreign media interfering while they were still investigating the ferry tragedy. ABC was also warned off.

This aversion to foreign media is a new thing in Kriibati, and comes after a flood of international coverage of the island’s uncertain future under former president Anote Tong.

The current administration is rightfully opposed to reporting that paints the island nation as doomed, but that seems to have extended to almost all climate change reporting.

Despite lengthy email chains that stretched over more than a month and included the President’s communications officer, as well as the New Zealand High Commission in Kiribati, I never received the visa.

Flights were booked, so I went anyway, figuring I’d be able to arrange something upon arrival. At least I’d be able to get a feel for the country and its challenges, speak to locals, and make contacts I could call on later.

When I arrived at the airport an immigration officer pulled me out of the queue. She knew who I was and reminded me I didn’t have a visa, so no reporting. A trip to the immigration office and office of the President that afternoon found my visa application sitting on a pile of paperwork in the next room but nothing could be done to move it along, as key people were out of the country.

The next day, police lights flashed in my rearview mirror. An officer pulled me over, and as a crowd of locals gathered around my rental 4WD, he told me I’d breached my visa. He was there to escort me to immigration.

I bought myself some time to let the High Commission know my situation. What I thought was going to be a grilling, and potential deportation, was nowhere near that dramatic.

But they did want me sign a form promising not to carry out any reporting while in the country, with a particular emphasis on climate change. I signed and left, keeping my head down and wearing tourist attire for the next couple of days.

It became increasingly clear climate change is a sensitive topic for the country. One local expert, who was eager to share her thoughts, said her current employer did not want her to be interviewed on the issue, and a former official was happy to talk but didn’t want his name used.

President Taneti Maamau also refused to be interviewed, despite multiple requests stretching over almost five months.

His communications officer made multiple promises of a chance to talk to Maamau, including thanking me for the opportunity for the President to talk to foreign media about his plans for climate adaptation and mitigation:

“I wish also like to thank you that this is the first time we were given this great opportunity to talk with you on our policies and directions for our people, despite many reports from Former President Anote Tong was topping your agenda since last year and before," the comms guy said in one of many emails that ended in a promise of an interview.

Earlier this month, Newsroom journalists were detained overnight after being arrested for criminal trespass in the Fijian capital of Suva (pictured). Photo: Laura Walters

This aversion to media attention isn’t unique to Kiribati.

My experience pales in comparison to that of my Newsroom colleagues Melanie Reid, Mark Jennings, and cameraman Hayden Aull, when they were arrested for criminal trespass and thrown in a Fijian police cell, earlier this month.

They were never charged and were released after an uncomfortable night on the floor of a holding room, at the central Suva police station.

Their dogged investigation into the desecration of the reef and seaside environment on Malolo Island ended in Chinese developers Freesoul Real Estate losing their approval to develop a resort, and facing a massive clean-up bill.

As Mel said following the saga: “that’s why you need journalism”.

As the recent sedition case between the state and senior editors at the Fiji Times, domestic Pacific media have to operate in a sometimes corrupt environment, and are forced to kowtow to the Government. This makes telling the full story, and properly scrutinising those in positions of authority a difficult ask. A reporting colleague in Tonga says her experience has been similar.

Foreign officials told Newsroom unsubstantiated claims rampant on social media have added to Fiji's general distrust of all media.

It must be like walking a tightrope between covering sensitive issues and exposing wrongdoing, and living to write another day.

If Pacific countries want the world to pay attention to the challenges they face, they need to allow the media – both domestic and international - to do its job and shine a light on important issues like climate change, environmental degradation and regional security.

And if they want respect in the international community, and partners like New Zealand, they need to strive towards achieving that vital mark of maturing democracies: press freedom.

You can read Newsroom's three-part series on climate-related migration in the Pacific here.

Laura's travel to the Pacific was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade through its Pacific Journalism Grant.

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