On Thursday, the Vanuatu government issued instructions that after 16 years living here and, despite having a Ni Vanuatu spouse and children, I will have to leave the country.
As the media director and publisher of Vanuatu’s only daily newspaper, a newspaper that has repeatedly held the government uncomfortably to account, I believe the government refused my application to renew my work visa to silence me and warn other journalists in the country not to speak out.
When I applied for the position of media director of Vanuatu’s Daily Post I knew it was going to be a tough gig. The founder, Marc Neil-Jones, had been physically assaulted, including by a government minister. He was imprisoned once, and even deported briefly as a result of his ground-breaking work in independent journalism here.
Reporting the news in a tiny island nation, which has a population of roughly 250,000, has all the challenges faced by truth-tellers the world over, with an added complication: everybody knows everybody. The pressures journalists face are extreme.
I began my tenure right at the beginning of an historic criminal trial that ended with 14 members of parliament being convicted on bribery and conspiracy-related charges.
During the trial, a witness who had evidence of a massive cash bribe was asked why he brought this evidence to the Daily Post before the police. He told the court: “Because then people would know it was true.”
Since then we have covered crimes and corruption and milestones in this country’s development too. We’re the only ones reporting in detail on budgets, laws, policies, and yes, government abuses.
The Daily Post has a reputation for reporting without fear or favour in Vanuatu. It’s essential to our democracy that this continue. It’s a mission that all of us at the newspaper take seriously.
The labour commissioner’s decision to reject my work permit came as a shock. The Daily Post had been assured by people at the very top that this was an administrative matter.
My spouse and children are from Vanuatu. When the news came, they spent the evening in tears, suddenly faced with a fractured family and an uncertain future.
The first sign of a problem occurred in July, when the prime minister (whose office is responsible for media) summoned me personally, and the then head of the Media Association of Vanuatu, to complain about our “negative” coverage.
The Daily Post had just published a series of articles relating to how the government had detained six Chinese nationals – four of whom had Vanuatu citizenship – without trial or access to legal counsel. They were stripped of their citizenship and placed on a plane to China. We don’t know what happened to them after that.
I was later told that a note was placed on my employment file at about that time.
There’s no evidence to suggest that China has asked for or even wanted my removal. But it seems clear that political pressures exerted on senior bureaucrats have resulted in this attempt to stifle the media.
The letter rejecting my visa renewal raised some serious questions.
For one, it said the reason for the refusal was that my position should have been filled by a Ni Vanuatu, or local hire, by now. But not two months ago, the Daily Post’s application to hire an expat sports editor was granted. How is this application any different?
The law empowers the commissioner of labour and the commissioner of labour alone to make these decisions. So why was the letter also copied to the minister of internal affairs?
The rejection letter also tried to tell the Daily Post who should be hired in my place. That’s an unacceptable intrusion in any business, and way over the line for an independent media company.
Thursday was a dark day for media freedom in the Pacific. When political elites abuse their authority to silence critical voices, democracy itself suffers. Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, spoke about the importance of independent media during her recent visit to Vanuatu, and we applauded her for it.
The Daily Post will fight this abuse of power just as it always has done. We may have progressed since the days when a minister of state and half a dozen henchmen assaulted Marc Neil-Jones. But clearly, even if tactics have changed, it seems to me that the political elites here still prefer to silence critics rather than respond honestly and openly.
That won’t stand. Our democracy has matured, and the groundswell of support for this newspaper’s work is inspiring and humbling.
These challenges exact an immense personal cost on us and our families. But we won’t shy away from them. With or without me, the Daily Post will continue to publish without fear or favour.