THIRTY FIVE LONG YEARS years since gaining independence, the freedom that is legally required by the media and the general public to access information that is of public interest, is still limited.
According to the 2014 Vanuatu National Integrity System (NIS) that was published by Transparency International Vanuatu, “there is no freedom of information law. The law does not promote freedom through measures such as freedom of information, although reforms are currently in place”.
“Whilst Freedom of Expression is enshrined in the Constitution, there are no specific laws protecting media freedom or editorial independence. There are no laws allowing access to information.”
As a matter of fact, the Official Secrets Act permits the government to restrict access to a wide variety of materials.
The Right to Information Bill was listed to be debated in the parliament in November 2014, but it was later withdrawn by the attorney general for further corrections before it was discussed. Until today, the bill is still being reviewed. Consequently, the media’s right to access information is still legally limited by law.
Apart from laws that constitute media freedom, history shows a list of different forms of retaliations that were taken by unhappy individuals and leaders towards media companies and personals.
Since 2009 there has been a consistent record of attacks and threats to media people and companies from the members of parliament, ministers and the government.
It has been observed that more subtle intimidation also occurs at times.
Reactions to Media Regulations
Last week Prime Minster Sato Kilman, who is also responsible for the media, raised concerns through the Broadcast Regulator Fred Vurobaravo, that if “Talk Back Shows on radio and exchange forums on Facebooks are not controlled to defame leaders, he will not hesitate this time to take stronger actions to as far as use all means to close down operations of the radio and social media”.
The Prime Minister “strongly emphasized that the new Media Regulation law must be brought in for ratification in the next session of Parliament”, and that the new law which is in a draft format will be presented to the Council of Ministers for approval after consultations. The letter by the Broadcast Regulator specifically identified that broadcasters, newspapers and the social media will be regulated under this new law.
The letter was addressed to Radio Vanuatu, FM 107, FM 96, Yumi Toktok Stret, the Daily Post, Independent Newspapers, Vila Times and Vanuatu Times.
The caution from the Prime Minister’s office raised a lot of comments and discussions, both local and regionally.
The Daily Post Publisher Marc Neil-Jones reacted with these words, “I’ve dealt with every prime minister since independence and this is the first time anyone has attempted to control independent media through legislation. If that were to happen, the negative publicity for Vanuatu would be catastrophic.”
Furthermore, hundreds of comments have been raised on social media regarding this case. The statement by the Prime Minister came out with a lot of rejections, however some accepted the fact that the media does need to be monitored and used responsibly.
Censorship is not expressly stated to be illegal. Apart from print media, the minister has the discretion to vary conditions and can suspend or revoke broadcasting licenses. In other words, licensing laws effectively allows the government to control the content of broadcasters.
Limited Protection for the Media and Advocators
A recent report on media freedom in the Pacific observed that, in Vanuatu ‘blatant intimidation [of journalists] continues with near impunity’.
In other words, media personals and people advocating through the media become physically vulnerable when reporting on very sensitive issues, some have been attacked and threatened yet justice has failed to serve both parties concerned.
The last few years Vanuatu has witnessed several incidents in the media industry. In 2014, a print journalist was arrested by the Police for ‘threatening’ the government on social media. In 2011, the Daily Post Publisher was assaulted by an MP, and again in 2009, he was severely assaulted by police on press charges of issues within the correctional service. Only one of these unlawful actions has been prosecuted with a VT15, 000 fine.
The list goes on further, from angry phone calls to angry visitations.
Even Transparency International Vanuatu (TIV) has earned the badge for hitting the mark, TIV reported four incidents of threats against the staff from 2012 to 2013.
Media Self-Regulatory System for Vanuatu
Can a media self-regulatory system for Vanuatu be the solution to advocating for responsible, accurate, respectful, and factual reporting?
Transparency International Vanuatu (TIV) understands that there has been discussions, and consultations last year by the Media Association of Vanuatu (MAV) in establishing a self-regulatory mechanism for the media industry.
TIV believes that a self-regulatory mechanism that allows media to self-regulate itself is way forward to improving the standard of media reporting in Vanuatu. A media regulation law by the government could infringe on the freedom of information, and as can be ‘catastrophic’ as stated by the publisher of the Daily Post.
Media in Vanuatu must be independent to be able to provide constructive criticism. Communication technology in Vanuatu is rising rapidly, therefore access to online discussion forums and mainstream news sites will continue to grow.
Having a mechanism that can allow for an independent platform to exist is crucial for any democracy. It provides a platform for public discussions where anyone can participate and be part of decision. And more importantly, it is a resourceful information hub for decision makers.
Media Association of Vanuatu Press Release
In a press statement released yesterday by the Media Association of Vanuatu (MAV), it says that MAV welcomes Prime Minister Sato Kilman’s call for the media and that civil society’s’ should exercise more responsibility through traditional media, and social media. But at the same time MAV is concerned over the government’s direction towards media and the rights of civilians.
In the statement MAV suggests that…
“the prime minister and his office staff familiarize themselves with the National Media Policy, the National ICT policy and the National FOI policy already in place”.
The MAV statement further emphasized that “because we believe in the Melanesian way of dialogue, we ask the responsible authority to allocate time to meet with MAV’s executive and be briefed on the progress towards the setting up of Vanuatu Media Council that will hopefully deal with complaints raised against the media”.
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