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Vanuatu publisher Neil-Jones tells of his struggle for a free press

Vanuatu publisher Marc Neil-Jones (left) with Pacific Media Centre director Dr David Robie beside the Vanuatu Daily Post press. Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

Pacific Media Centre

9 May, 2011

Marc Neil-Jones in Apia, Samoa, surveys the Vanuatu and Pacific media freedom file and awards a fail mark to governments.

I have spent 29 years in the media industry in Melanesia in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and have had first hand experience on difficulties trying to pioneer freedom of press in Vanuatu which has only had independent media since the mid 1990s, as up until then it was completely monopolised by the Vanuatu government.

Since launching the Trading Post in 1993 I have been deported, jailed, assaulted a number of times, threatened many times, and defamed by government numerous times in their attacks on me through their own media outlets. However, we have always managed to stand our ground by adhering to media codes of ethics, not supporting any political party and doing our job of informing the public on issues of national interest.

I am pleased to say attitudes have changed towards media, although inherent problems remain between government and media throughout the Pacific that are never likely to change as it is the nature of the beast. It is a love/hate relationship. They love us when they are in opposition and hate us when they are in government.

In fact, I used to joke and tell government ministers over a friendly shell of kava that it is my job to be a pain in their backside and if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be doing my job. Now in Vanuatu they accept that it is media’s job to be a pain for the government and ask difficult questions and expose news that they may not like. That is our job.

You know if you have hit a nerve with an expose that is big news, depending on the reaction you get from government. If they over react, that means you have hit home accurately with your news and they are running for cover. A politician knows that the best form of defence is attack and generally they pick on something not directly related to the news item and certainly rarely answering directly concerns raised.

Marc Neil-Jones ... "I am unfortunately more of a target for violence than perhaps my Melanesian editor." Photo: PMCAs a  palagi living in Melanesia and a newspaper publisher, I am unfortunately more of a target for violence than perhaps my Melanesian editor.

My 19-year-old son was surfing the internet and said to me "dad, you are only famous for getting assaulted" and I said: “What do you mean?” He pointed out that when he googled NEIL-JONES ASSAULT there were at the last count 197,000 pages on the internet and that is a direct result of strong regional media assistance over the years and in particular raising a storm of the latest incident involving a Vanuatu government minister coming into my office with 8 thugs and assaulting me and trying to strangle me over news he didn’t like.

Embarrassing news
It is embarrassing for me that my only fame is getting assaulted, jailed or deported over news but it also shows how effective the Pacific journalists email forum and the Pacific freedom forum as well as Pacific Media Watch and regional media bodies such as the Pasifika Media Association (PASIMA), Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) when it comes to applying pressure to help us.

I feel I need to give some brief explanation to why I was deported, jailed , threatened and assaulted.

The only time that I probably deserved being given a hard time was when I came to Melanesia from London. When I first got to Papua New Guinea in 1982, I was young and employed as advertising and marketing manager for Word Publishing under Russell Hunter whom many of you know when he worked here and in Fiji after he left PNG.

Well, I knew nothing about custom and did what every advertising person did in those days in London, I draped half naked girls including my wife at the time, over the cars to sell them in PNG and made them look good in advertisements in the paper which was owned by the churches. It certainly got noticed by people who hadn't seen pretty girls selling cars in a church newspaper.

Papua New Guineans  from the rural areas asked if the girls came free with the car and they were not interested in the car but how much was the girl? Of course, in these days such sexist advertising would be condemned and I would have people like Lisa Williams-Lahari and others  hounding me over using girls like this but in those days it was normal.

I thought I had wised up but made the same error when I first got to Vanuatu in 1989 and published a wall calendar using pretty girls, wrapping themselves around the tam-tams (drums) that we have in Vanuatu. This was a big no no as girls are not allowed anywhere near tam-tams in custom on the island where they are made and I got hammered with a large custom fine from the paramount chief.

He demanded around US$500 as a custom fine and I argued that I should pay him in custom fines of pigs and mats. We ended up friends but I vowed then to learn everything about custom and culture in Vanuatu and now have my own cultural centre as a tourist attraction.

In 1993, I launched a successful newspaper in competition to the government - now the Vanuatu Daily Post - and that is when the fun and games started.  However, they were not used to a free and open media as everything had been government-controlled until that point apart from a couple of newspapers that had been closed down for irritating the government and being run by foreigners.

Nightclub assault
I first used PINA when Monica Miller was president in the mid 1990s. I had been assaulted in a nightclub when I was having a friendly chat with a minister, Willie Jimmy, and one of his drunken supporters assaulted me over a news item we had run. The minister was in no way involved and told his guy to stop. I left. I had no intention of writing anything on the incident as it wasn't news but then the minister called me and demanded that I not write anything on what happened otherwise he would burn down the office.

Well, that became news and I ran with it to show ministers that they could not threaten media. I contacted PINA and there was publicity on what happened in the region and it sent a message to the government on what would happen if they made threats.

We were lucky for a few years and the government tolerated us despite me being a foreigner and continually breaking sensitive news on corruption, publishing ombudsman reports and satirical cartoons but in January 2001 the then Prime Minister Barak Sope had enough and accused me of "revealing and publishing classified state secrets'".

I had in fact broken the secret corrupt and fraudulent activities that he and the Indian conman Amarendra Nath Ghosh had been setting up with bank guarantees that eventually got him jailed for three years. Sope had obviously been sufficiently panicked to have me picked up with no warning and taken to the airport at 6am where they even kept the plane delayed to bundle me on the flight.

As a foreigner, by law I should have been given 14 days notice but this never happened and suddenly I was on a plane losing everything I owned plus my future wife behind. I wasn't even given the chance to pack a suitcase and had no cash on me or credit cards. As an insulin dependent diabetic I was in a serious predicament. What was even more astonishing was the fact that I had been being an immigration bond to my home country of England for a decade but they deported me to Australia.

Immediately, PINA and Radio Australia and Radio NZ were contacted by my staff and the news hit the wires. I was met at the airport by Sean Dorney and interviewed for television and radio and the pressure mounted. The Acting Chief Justice signed a court order preventing the government from stopping me returning to Vanuatu to challenge the decision.

I was met at the airport late at night with a hundred people and my future ni-Vanuatu wife was filmed by local television running into my arms. It would have been great TV but PM Sope refused to allow it to go to air and, instead, made a statement saying I would be deported again and if necessary they would change the law in Parliament to have me removed.

Damning report
However, I was lucky and his government fell within a few weeks. In addition the Ombudsman issued a damning public report showing the the deportation was highly illegal.

The new government agreed to settle out of court all my costs as they knew had if I gone to court with the Ombudsman report out they would have lost.

I had the last laugh in this case as when I arrived in Brisbane I was highly emotional and upset thinking I had lost everything. The local people on the plane who had heard all about what had happened at the airport as I had started yelling that I was being deported and there is no democracy in Vanuatu and to tell everyone what they were witnessing - they had a whip round on the plane and gave me nearly A$300 to help me.

Friends told me to come out with them and get drunk and forget about it and wait to see what happens. They got me plastered, took me to a few strip joints and girlie bars, got me a couple of lap dances and I started to cheer up. Well, I put all that in my expense claim against the government that they settled out of court so I got even.

What is important with this story was that I had seen how vital it is in getting the news out on attacks on media as it embarrasses the government and creates pressure to follow the law. I was convinced and still am that media has no choice but to go public as much as possible to rack up pressure as the Vanuatu govt gets concerned if pressure comes from outside that they cannot control.

In April 2006, I had demanded the suspension of a police officer who had assaulted my sports editor at a rugby match between police and the Vanuatu Mobile Force. Two days later police members of the rugby team turned up at the office early in the morning, arrested me and threw me in the maximum security jail on a driving charge that had not gone to court and was later dropped.

Jail for payback
They seriously tried to have me jailed for 3 months as payback. I was somewhat nervous going into the jail as we had written news items about these hard core cases and as the only white guy in the jail needing daily insulin I was worried.

I needn't have been as all the prisoners were great and happy to see me. Some were shuffling about wearing leg irons tied to each other and others showed me nasty whip marks where they had been beaten by the police. I told them I would try and help them if and when I got out.

I was lucky and the newspapers lawyers did their job and I was out as darkness approached. I kept my word and did a big expose and editorial opinion on human rights abuses in the jail. Later the system was changed and a new Correctional Services policy backed by New Zealand was introduced.

Publisher Marc Neil-Jones with his staff. Photo: PMCIn January 2009, we had written a number of news items critical of Correctional Services and heavy handed police action in the jail. A prisoners report on humans rights abuses was leaked to us out of the prison by an educated inmate that we published. There had been numerous person escapes and then the jail was burned down. I did what any editor would do and called for minister Joshua Bong's suspension pending a commission of enquiry into the burning down of the jail, prisoners claims of abuse and numerous escapes under his command.

Bong had threatened to send his boys into the office if we didn't apologise for a tongue in cheek photo caption of the prison gates wide open for hours on end and a caption that said '"gates wide open and eyes wide shut"

Four  police working for Bong in Correctional Services entered the office and belted the crap out of me accusing me of getting Bong sacked as the PM had suspended him two weeks after our editorial.

Death threats
I was punched and kicked a number of times when I was on the ground. The two others with him threatened to kill me because I hadn’t got their side of the story on the problems with the prison. One threatened me with a knife and said he would cut my neck and another threatened to shoot me. They said they were going to take me to the prison to look after the prisoners.

I managed to make them stop only with some inspired acting. I told them I was diabetic and started shaking. One of them said: "He is bullshitting. Kill him." I thought my acting must suck so I started to dribble and roll my eyes and gasp for breath. That worked and they suddenly left.

With the growth of regional news outlets online and the launch of Transparency International in Vanuatu as well as Pacific journalists' email forums and launch of freedom forums, the online world has helped create a media monster that can be used effectively to raise a huge voice when something happens.

After this assault we let fly and the region reacted. David Robie was a tremendous help through his blog Cafe Pacific and Pacnews got the word out around the region and newspapers started covering it all over the place. The wire services were tipped off by media pros in the region. Concerns were raised overseas through diplomatic missions in Port Vila and yet nothing was ever done as it was my word against theirs and I had a weak case and the police and Public Prosecutor did nothing.

The main officer who assaulted me is now in charge of Port Vila police station and was appointed by his mate Joshua Bong who is now the Police Commissioner. A typical Vanuatu SNAFU some would say.

Now in 2011, and with PasiMA and the Freedom Forum taking over from a declining and ineffective PINA, when it comes to standing up to media abuse in the region, the assistance to those of us in the region who have problems really comes home to roost as it is more effective now than it has ever been to get the word out and embarrass governments over attacks on press freedom.

My latest assault angered many because it was a government minister who came into the office with 8 thugs and assaulted me, tore clumps of hair out and tried to strangle me while the minister was yelling at me.I had written a news item based on a public report made by the most senior civil servant in the Department of Lands at the time on alleged
corruption on request from the Prime Minister. He had access to any file he wanted and slipped me a copy of the report which gave me front page snows stories for a week.

Minister implicated
The minister had been implicated for seizing a run down property in a prime part of Port Vila and selling it to a political affiliate who is now the Deputy Prime Minister for a
ridiculously low figure. The motel was unsold within a couple of months for 10 times the amount and the government had lost half a million dollars in revenue because he hadn't gone to tender. I had broken that story in the first place and now it was in the official report with all facts documented. I simply quoted from the report and he has accused me of bias because I didn't get his side of the story. I didn't need it as we were quoting from official government documents and I wasn't breaching media ethics.

In any other country in the "developed" world a minister storming into a national newspaper with a gang and assaulting the publisher and threatening the editor would last 48 hours before being forced to resign or sacked. No so in Vanuatu because of instability in the government as if the PM had sacked the minister the government would have fallen.

The front page Vanuatu Daily Post on March 4 reporting the assault. Graphic: VDPThe pressure has been unbelievable from outside. I was assaulted on March 4 and simply sent a copy of our front page story to five email addresses. From there it mushroomed out all over the place by email.

The Pacific Media Centre, through Professor David Robie, got the news out out the next day on his Pacific Scoop site and Pacific Media Watch news web site. Dr Mark Hayes put it up on the media ethics blog called ethical martini. By March 7, Pasifika Media Association had issued a strong press statement condemning the assault an demanding the minister be charged and had set up an online petition web site headed 'Stop Violence Against Journalists In The Pacific islands" that attracted hundreds of signatures before a glitch prevented more signatures being added.

PINA and the Media Association of Vanuatu and Solomon Islands reacted and issued statements condemning the assault, letters started pouring in from around the world where the news had broken and then Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders and IFJ all issued statements. Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand rushed to support and the diplomatic mission in Vila raised concern with the USA issuing a strong public statement demanding justice.

The Vanuatu government had never before been under so much pressure from around the region over an assault on media. The minister issued a statement saying I was publicising what happened all over the region without his side of the story and we knew the pressure was mounting. Sources in the government advised that they were surprised at the pressure they were getting and negative publicity. All this from 6 emails.

We decided to keep the pressure up because there should be one justice system for all and nobody is above the law. I want the minister to go on trial and believe firmly that if he is convicted and cannot stand in politics in the next elections and no longer an MP because of a criminal conviction, that will send a message to everyone in power that this is what happens if you take the law into your own hands and assault the messenger.

Still sceptical
I was an still am sceptical over whether the police and public prosecutors office will do their job as they haven't in the past. I decided to rack up the pressure on the system by contacting the Australian Pro Bono Resource Centre because I felt that given the huge regional publicity on the assault it would be of interest to a high-powered lawyer to do it pro bono. I succeeded in getting the former Solicitor-General of the Solomon Islands and an appeal court judge in Vanuatu willing to assist us pro bono but this has been rejected by
the Public Prosecutor so the pressure is now on her with the region watching.

The case is currently in front of the courts and is clear cut so it will be interesting to see what happens, particularly now the government has changed and the new government want him convicted.

None of this would have been possible without regional support and I wish to publicly thank everyone who has assisted in getting this to court. I think it is timely that we are now having discussions on how to coordinate regional responses to issues affecting media in the Pacific.

One of the concerns I have is that people who have little knowledge of media ethics are pushing for a Media Complaints Council to be set up. As I was the person who drafted a media code of ethics for Vanuatu, I was astonished when the president of PINA, Moses Stevens, and president of MAV accused me of breaching media ethics because I did not run their press releases and at the same time they were breaching ethics by demanding that the Vanuatu government not give me a radio licence and making it a reserved industry for indigenous ni-Vanuatu.

I have lived in Vanuatu for 22 years, am married to a ni-Vanuatu and have been a citizen with a Vanuatu passport for 7 years. I was refused a right of reply to a front page news attack on me in Stevens' paper because they also owned the only radio station and I was going to be competition.

I feel there is a need in the South Pacific for a regional Pacific Media Complaints Council to be set up to assist countries. If anyone has a complaint that cannot be sorted out with the media outlet it can be referred to the Pacific Media Complaints Council.

The reason I say this is that you need people who have a life time experience in media ethics such as professors of journalism, media lawyers, retired editors of national newspapers and so on. In Vanuatu, we do not have that and my concern is that we will end up having politicians, chiefs and pastors with little or no knowledge of media and ethics dictating what we can or cannot write. That to me is unacceptable.

Regional council
The minister who led the assault on me has said he will fight to get media code of ethics made law. How would journalists feel if they could be arrested on charges that they did not get comment from a politician or printed a photo of a dead body? No we need a regional Pacific Media Complaints Council set up with qualified and experienced people and if they believe ethics have been broken and demand apologies it would be acceptable to everyone in the industry. I think this would get the support of many countries.

Finally I would like to say on World Press Freedom Day, that my assaults are something nothing compared to what journalists in the rest of the world go through. At least 134 journalists were killed in 2009 and 94 journalists were killed in 2010.

Jim Boumelha, the IFJ president said: "The sheer number of murders and conflict-related incidents which claimed the lives of journalists and media personnel around the globe this year has brought into sharp focus the high risks associated with the practice journalism today.Nearly 100 journalists killed is a heavy loss which ought to stir the world governments into action to offer better protection to journalists."

It can get uncomfortable sometimes practising journalism and exposing corruption in the Pacific Islands, but we live in a journalism paradise compared to the poor journalists who have lost their lives fighting to do the same in Pakistan, indonesia, Afghanistan, Mexico , Iraq, Phillippines and Russia in the last year. We should salute them for their bravery and thank our lucky stars that the Pacific way is still the best way dispute occasional hiccups.

Marc Neil-Jones is founder and publisher of the Vanuatu Daily Post. This was a World Press Freedom Day speech on May 3 at a regional media conference in Apia, Samoa.

The full Marc Neil-Jones speech


Hey Marc, how about a skype chat?

Hey Marc, how are you doing? Its ur nephew from back home. Would be great to chat some time soon on skype perhaps. When are you free? Big love ANJ X

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