There has been much wringing of hands over Nauru’s ban on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for next month’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit. But, reports Sri Krishnamurthi of Asia Pacific Journalism, even more perplexing is Canberra’s relative silence.
The elephant in the room about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ban that has people tip-toeing through the frangipani and whispering in hushed tones is the Canberra’s asylum seeker detention centre in the small Pacific state of Nauru.
Nauru is the host of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit on September 3-6 and the ban on the ABC has been widely condemned by media freedom groups, including the Pacific Media Centre.
The Nauru detention centre has become a significant part of Nauru’s economy since 2001, and in the wake of the strip mining of phosphate (guano) which left it bereft of resources and finances.
“Nauru’s Australian-managed detention camp is a disgrace, just as the one on Manus island was (now closed). It shows the profound hypocrisy of both Australian and Nauruan authorities,” says Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk for Reporters with Borders (RSF).
“Canberra outsources its absurd anti-immigration policy and washes its dirty hands in paying huge amounts of money to Yaren which, in exchange, accepts to carry on human rights violations.
“For sure, Nauruan authorities don’t want journalists to investigate this issue, to report on the living or surviving conditions of the refugees and to interview the numerous men, women and children arbitrarily detained in the camp,” he told Asia Pacific Report.
“And the Australian government doesn’t want this hypocrisy to be exposed either, since Canberra is responsible for this matter.”
Veteran New Zealand journalist Michael Field, who has covered the Pacific for three decades, is under no illusion why Nauru has banned the ABC and imposed restrictions on the accredited media that will be covering the Forum.
“It is hardly surprising given the way Nauru has been turned into an Australian concentration camp – Nauru and Australian authorities are desperate to avoid an independent view of it all,” says Field.
“Australia has treated Nauru as a colony long after independence. But the current Nauru government is strongly opinionated and has a deep sense of its own point of view.”
Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez, a media law specialist and academic at Curtin University, Western Australia, and an RSF correspondent, believes Canberra should use its influence to get Nauru to back down on its ban.
“This kind of attitude from governments towards the media should be checked and it should be done convincingly. After all, Australia does provide financial aid to Nauru,” Dr Fernandez says.
“It should use this as a leverage to ensure such governments do not behave in an unacceptable way especially when Australian interests are at stake.
“The Australian public are entitled to not have a representative from their public broadcaster denied permission to cover the event only on the grounds that the host government is not happy with the broadcaster’s previous coverage.”
He is not surprised by Canberra treading warily around the issue.
“It is disappointing that the Australian government has not been more active in opposing this ban, but it isn’t surprising because our leaders tend to take a ‘softly, softly’ approach,” Dr Fernandez says.
He does think that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should be a bit more vocal on ABC’s banning from a free media point-of-view, than washing its hands of the affair and claiming Nauru has “sovereign” rights.
“Yes, of course. Even though Nauru may be right to say that it should have the final say about who it grants an entry visa to, in the present case the grounds for such refusal are very flimsy and an affront to the notion of a free press,” says Dr Fernandez.
The ABC more than any other media organisation in the Pacific has arguably covered Nauru better than the rest, and by doing so has got under the thin veneer of democracy of Baron Waqa’s presidency.
“The ABC has a history of investigation in Nauru. In 2015, it investigated a bribery scandal of President Waqa by an Australian phosphate dealer,” RSF’s Bastard says.
Michael Field says: “I guess it is simply because the ABC has covered Nauru more than other news outlets.”
Dr Fernandez explains: “The ABC is well regarded for its fearless reporting, not just in Australia but also on other countries.
“The ABC coverage of Nauru has been quite critical in the past and this is not something countries with less established democracies are comfortable with.
“Those in power sometimes allow that power to go to their heads. If the Nauruan government has a complaint about specific ABC reporting it should use the proper channels to take these complaints forward.
“The ABC has one of the most elaborate complaints mechanisms in the country. That aside, if something is legally actionable they should take action through the courts. After all, governments and their leaders are better placed to seek redress through the courts.”
Bastard bluntly states that the Nauruan government is authoritarian in its outlook.
“Nauruan authorities don’t have a strong history of promoting freedom to inform, especially since 2013. What with the US$8000 fee to apply for a visa (waived for the Forum), with no guarantee of approval, the blocking of Facebook for almost three years, increasing cases of blatant censorship on domestic media in the recent years…
“There is nothing to gain in acting like this if you want to build a long-term democracy. But if the current government wants to remain in power…?”
Bastard agrees with the boycott: “Yes, absolutely,” he says.
“Media and journalists have to show solidarity with their colleagues. If a government doesn’t want to abide by democratic rules in letting the press do its work freely, then the press as a whole doesn’t have to abide by authoritarian decisions.”
But, says Field: “Journalists should report the news – not boycott it…. And if there are handicaps in that reporting, then tell the readers. Not run off into the corner and have a cry.”
News Corp in Australia has already rejected the boycott, and while the New Zealand Press Gallery sympathises with its Australian counterparts it will not be boycotting the Forum.
“We share the concerns expressed by our Australian counterparts in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery about the Nauru Government’s decision to ban the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from the Pacific Islands Forum,” says Stacey Kirk, chair of the NZ Parliamentary Press Gallery.
“There is no intention for the NZ Parliamentary Press Gallery to boycott the forum at this stage,” she told Asia Pacific Report.”
With only a matter of weeks to the Forum there is water to run under the bridge yet.
Sri Krishnamurthi is a journalist on the Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies (Digital Media) reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.