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Pacific Countries Told: 'Face Scrutiny'

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Donna Hoerder talks to Michael Field, banned from last month's Forum Wansolwara, USP Journalism Programme

SUVA: New Zealand journalist Michael Field missed his first South Pacific Forum last month in more than a decade.

He was shut out by a sensitive Kiribati government annoyed with some unflattering past reports.

This was the third country to close its doors to him after Fiji - for a while - and Tonga.

And the man who has been barred from more Pacific countries than anybody else is upset that the Kiribati government did not even have the courtesy to notify him personally.

Mr Field told Wansolwara he had only found out through friends and colleagues.

"I don't understand how a country can be allowed to host a multinational forum but exclude journalists it does not like," he said.

"It is typical of the weakness of the ineffectual forum leadership that they surrender to the demands of one petulant state and continue to hold their meetings, free of scrutiny or question despite the taxpayers of the region paying for it all."

He said that if the leaders were to have any relevance to the region then they must explain their decisions to the region and reporters must be allowed to offer critical scrutiny.

Mr Field was refused entry to Kiribati after he wrote about the level of pollution there.

However, this year the South Pacific Regional Environmental Project (SPREP) "wrote far worse things" yet the Kiribati government made no negative comments, said Mr Field.

From this report, the Kiribati government had advised everyone attending the forum meeting to bring their own supply of water and get tetanus shots.

Yet the pollution problem had been written more than a year ago by Mr Field in Pacific Islands Monthly.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff and media groups appealed to the Kiribati government to lift the ban but Mr Field said the plot had been lost over the issue.

He pleads not guilty to a charge that he is culturally insensitive.

"But I have to admit that I've got to be blunt in the stories I write and I resent being labelled the insensitive white guy," he said.

As he has been to most Pacific countries, he says he thinks he has proved himself.

"I wrote a book on Samoan colonial history called Mau which is still being used in Samoan schools today," he said.

"I do many positive stories on the Pacific that give attention to the region and its governments."

However, the Forum Secretariat media adviser, Ulafala Aiavao, said that although Mr Field had a duty to inform with accuracy, he should not let hard news be overwhelmed by the objectives.

"A lot of comments from the average person is about his writing being unsympathetic and they think he mocks the difficult situation they are in," said Mr Aiavao.

"But Mike's job isn’t there to make them feel like they're celebrities.

"Although he could include the other side, he could explain more about Kiribati where crops are hard to grow and a water/sewage system is almost impossible to install because the islands have barely any land above water."

Mr Field recalled having been banned from Tonga for "insulting" the King.

"But when challenged to produce evidence of this charge they were unable to," he said.

"In fact, they didn't like me covering the democracy convention and they were particularly upset at the coverage I gave to their sales of Tongan passports and citizenship."

Although, in time the Tonga High Court agreed with him that the sale of passports was illegal.

Fiji kept Mr Field out after some mix up that he had covered the 1987 coup. He hadn't.

Rumour has it that he would not have been able to enter the Solomon Islands. But after a coup and civil war earlier this year he is unsure whether this still counts.

+++niuswire


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