‘That’s why you need journalism’
Newsroom published a three-part investigation into environmental destruction on Malolo Island, Fiji, this week..Co-editor Tim Murphy discusses with journalist Melanie Reid the background to the story and why a stop being put on a big tourism resort matters.
Why did you take on this particular story?
I started investigating it in December last year and did the first story in February.
The environment, the misuse of power, and the mistreatment of the vulnerable are all high on my radar and this story had all those aspects.
The Chinese resort developers, Freesoul, were running roughshod, had no permits, and had dug out out 100m of reef, reclaimed foreshore, cut through sensitive mangrove forest, to name a few situations - all without environmental approval. The people of Solevu village had no voice and no ability to stop them and the people who did have the ability to stop them were doing nothing. The extent to which Freesoul had subverted the Fijian institutions and the law was remarkable.
There is an Environmental Management Act enacted in 2005 to stop this sort of thing. There'd been inspections, but nothing was done, even after the four stop-work orders issued by Native Lands, Director for the Environment and the Director of Lands in June 2018 - the developers just carried on.
How did you originally find out about what was happening up there?
Malolo Island is close to one of the world's most famous surf breaks, Cloud Break. Because my son is a surfer and travels the world to different coastlines this was one of the areas he surfs and because of his relationship with the people there I was made aware that something dreadful was going on in this part of the world.
His friend and some of the elders contacted me as well as the two Australian surfers Nav Fox and Woody Jack who own the land adjoining the Freesoul development. They were absolutely desperate for help. The Aussie surfers had spent their life savings trying to stop Freesoul and had managed to get an injunction from the Fijian courts with Kiwi based lawyer Ken Chambers. But they were all hitting their heads against a brick wall so to speak ... I remember the the lawyer saying to me “It's like Frans Kafka without a compass”.
Despite the stop work orders and an injunction the developers just kept on going, so for six months approximately 50 crew were working day and night.
There is a lot of talk about how people up there make things happen or for those in authority to look the other way. Obviously something was going on because the developers were operating with no approvals and nothing was being done to stop them.
Your first story in early February exposed it all. How do you think those in authority reacted?
The Director of Public Prosecutions promised to prosecute Freesoul and there was a lot of publicity around this but until recently no charges had been laid - so effectively the authorities following the February story were forced to at least make it look like they were doing something.
Then all the reports coming from the village were that the developers were still going strong. I received videos from locals to prove this. The Chinese developers just acted like they had the authority to keep going.
So you decided to go back up there?
Yeah, I knew we were going to be in for an almighty scrap.This is a $100m dollar development. They aren’t going to fold easily, There's a lot of money at stake.
But I thought about the desecration of the environment and I felt so sad for the local people being disrespected.
They live close to nature and now, in this case, their fishing grounds are being polluted. When the women from the village tell you they can no longer get their crabs (a mainstay) because the mangroves and foreshore has sewage and silt through the area where they collect their kai. It's just like putting poison on a pristine garden - the soul of village life.
I make no secret, that when appropriate I do journalism as a protection of the land and people and I fight for the underdog. There was a lot of hassling up there and you need the best team around you. I had my long time friend and colleague Mark Jennings and Hayden Aull who Mark and I had both worked with for years at TV3. I don't mind being pushed around to get to the heart of the matter and I work with resilient people.
Did you get worried at any point during the filming?
My greatest fear was the footage - that either Freesoul staff or the police would come and get it. Freesoul staff harassed us endlessly, chased us on boats told us to “get out” plus they were going around the resorts trying to find out where we were staying. I’d been warned, “This is Fiji”. There was the potential for them to take everything, so at night Hayden our cameraman was downloading the day's filming and we were stashing it around the island, away from where we were staying as a precaution. Before we went to Suva we left an entire copy of our footage from Malolo island with my good friend in Fiji. It was all just in case, but when we were arrested I knew we had our footage safe. I knew we were okay.
Talking of getting arrested... you were quoted as saying you’ve had better nights out?
Well I always try and find the funny side in everything I guess but to be honest, I was tired, hadn’t had a shower for three days, had been travelling most of the day in tropical heat ... I was hungry hot and pretty buggered and I was like, I’m nearly finished my filming and in my mind I was so looking forward to going and having a shower and a decent meal. So when I was arrested I was like “you have to be f**king joking me”.. I really wasn’t in the mood for being in lock-down at Suva's central police station nor sleeping on some scuzzy floor in a holding room with not even a blanket. Look I’m not precious nor am I soft but in reality it was pretty grim.
So what people don’t realise is how you kept hold of your phone at the police station?
Well at the point when the police asked for our phones, watches and everything we had ... I had a computer bag and it had all my notebooks and some sound equipment in it so I was like ... shit ... so I told them it was going to be easier for everyone concerned if I gave my entire bag to the lawyer who had come down to represent us as he was about to leave. I was escorted by police out to the car with the lawyer to ensure he had taken my bag and on the way I stuffed my phone down my bra. One of the benefits of a top-heavy arsenal.
Then your visit with the PM for tea?
From detainment to a high tea, it was all pretty extraordinary, we deserved an apology so it was good we got one.
You made the PM shake your hand on sorting out the environmental damage created by the development.
The main aim is accountability and righting the wrong. I wasn’t going to just sit there and smile sweetly in front of the PM without getting some commitment that Freesoul should and would get ordered off Malolo Island.
And in the words of the PM himself at the recent Fijian Tourism awards: “To any developer from anywhere in the world let me say this, if you intend to destroy or forever degrade our environment, you are not welcome in Fiji.”
So I reminded him of that.
The Prime Minister and government have moved pretty fast now, after nearly a year of inaction, it seems the development has been stopped. So the stories obviously prompted this?
True. And that’s why you need journalism.