By Stefan Armbruster in Brisbane
A brief discussion and handshake with President Baron Waqa in April saw a senior Nauruan foreign affairs official delegated as my contact for a journalist visa.
Waqa was in Brisbane for negotiations on the proposed Pacific free trade agreement and I took the chance to ask for a rare journalist visa to report on Nauru’s election.
Now the absence of any international media from Nauru for the poll is being examined by the official Commonwealth election observer mission, led by Kiribati’s former President Anote Tong.
“Let us progress forward on this very issue that you did kindly started [sic] back in Brisbane with your daring approached to our President,” said an email in May from the Nauruan official delegated by Waqa.
“Fortunately for SBS, it did worked as accordingly [sic] but unfortunately for me, the President then turn to me with instructions that I will personally assist you to whatever endeavours you are kindly aiming for.”
“Whilst we were in Brisbane, I am of the opinion that we have both already agreed in the preparation of SBS doing a news coverage [sic] of the coming national election in Nauru and I strongly believed that we did cemented [sic] that decision making by the shaking of our hands.”
As requested, a visa application and letter of assignment from SBS to report on the Nauruan election was submitted. All was going well, I was told, but all journalist visas must be approved by Nauru’s cabinet.
In January 2014, the Nauruan government had increased the journalist visa application fee from $200 to a non-refundable $8000, even if rejected. In correspondence with Nauruan officials, I was not asked to pay the fee.
Only two Australian media organisations have been granted visas in the past two years, but neither Channel 9 nor The Australian have revealed if they paid.
In May, I also broke the news Nauru had cancelled all visitor visas for Australian and New Zealand citizens.
Nauru’s government responded to my report on Twitter: “Visas to Nauru have not revoked. Procedures have been changed. Gov will issue statement soon.”
In a second tweet, that was later deleted, it said: “Changes in visa policy implemented after ABC dishonestly entered country as tourist & failed to declare they were media”.
The allegation was denied by the ABC.
Biggest aid donor
The government then tweeted: “Gov stands by info in tweets deleted about journalists entering illegally, but wanted to provide clear facts on current visa requirements.”
Australia is Nauru’s former administrative power and still biggest foreign aid donor. The former dependency hosts the controversial regional processing centre for refugees and asylum seekers, a central piece of both Labor and the Coalition’s border protection policies.
Unlike New Zealand, which has cut aid to Nauru, Australia has only offered muted criticism of the Waqa government, especially over commitments to democracy and rule-of-law.
In 2013, Nauru’s Resident Magistrate Peter Law was dismissed and Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames barred from returning to the country from Australia.
Five opposition MPs were suspended indefinitely from Parliament in 2014, including three who criticised the government during foreign media interviews.
Attorney-General David Adeang said at the time: “These MPs have done what no other country would deem acceptable – use the foreign media to trash our international reputation.”
After a visit last month by Channel 9’s A Current Affair to report on the Australian-run detention centre, Nauru’s government issued a statement on media access.
‘No media ban’
“The Government of Nauru has never enacted a media ban or blackout as has been reported by some media outlets. We have a media visa application process and as a sovereign nation we alone choose who enters our country. The lack of respect of our sovereignty by some Australian media outlets indicates extreme arrogance and hypocrisy,” it said.
“It is for reasons of safety and security that we are not able to allow all media onto Nauru, and we will never allow media who we believe will intentionally incite violence and unrest to further their story.
“We should note that other than these few activist journalists, we have received very little interest from mainstream media outlets. In fact some time ago one Australian network was approved to visit Nauru and then decided not to come.”
SBS does have a reputation for reporting on asylum seeker detention in Nauru.
In 2003, Dateline’s Bronwyn Addock gained access to the original, Howard government era detention centre on Nauru by slipping under its perimeter fence.
Her report “Inside Nauru; Pacific Despair” won or was a finalist in numerous journalism awards, including the UNAAs, Walkleys and Logies.
Throughout May and early June correspondence continued with Nauraun officials.
“I did finalised [sic] everything with my boss, the Secretary for DFAT to who was [sic] with the President in Brisbane when you did put in your request for doing a media reporting [sic] on the Nauru’s coming general election,” one official said.
“The matter has been pass onto the Nauru Media Department to who are [sic] the office responsible for coordinating foreign media visit into Nauru.”
After the election date for Nauru’s 8000 voters was set for July 9, there was silence from Nauru on my visa application.
Finally after more emails to officials, Director of Immigration Rajeev Keerthiyil responded on Monday.
“We are sorry to inform that we will not be able to process your request for media visas currently,” he said.
Nauru’s Government Information Office (GIO) and other officials from the Pacific nation did not confirm to SBS if any other international media have been granted access to cover the election.
Head of the Commonwealth election observer mission in Nauru, former Kiribati President Anote Tong, told SBS they were not aware of any foreign journalists.
“That is something that we will have to consider further because the question is, ‘Why is there none?’, and we’re not in a position to make that analysis at this point,” Tong said.
“We have to understand the context of how it is. It’s a very small country. The fact is there really is no media except the state-owned media.
“In terms of freedom of speech, we are talking to candidates, they are saying what they want to say in public. We don’t see anybody being harassed because of it, so I think freedom of speech is present.”
Stefan Armbruster is Brisbane-based Pacific correspondent of SBS News. This article is republished with permission.