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Cook Islands Govt Seeks Libel Action Over Spoof

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AVARUA, Rarotonga (Govmed/CIN/RNZI/Pacific Media Watch): The Cook Islands government has moved to file a lawsuit against newspaper and television owner George Pitt over publication of a spoof letter by one of the Pitt Media Group's publications, local media report.

A government media release reported that the Crown Law office had filed an application for leave to charge Pitt with libel.

Prime ministerial adviser Norman George said the application would be heard in the High Court on Monday.

The Crown has engaged New Zealand lawyer William Arkle to represent the government.

The lawsuit bid follows the publication of a satirical letter - purportedly from Prime Minister Dr Robert Woonton to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao - challenging government support for the "one China" policy. The letter was published last week in the Herald, one of three newspapers owned by the PMG.

"Although the letter was in no way connected with government, some people were fooled into thinking it was genuine - especially as the letter was published in the newspaper¹s opinion section," the government statement said.

George reportedly said that some cabinet ministers and many citizens thought the letter was genuine.

"George Pitt now claims it was an attempt at humour and that people should have known it wasn¹t for real because it was on the opinion page," Norman George was quoted as saying.

"But in the past, just about everything on the opinion page has been a biased and unfair attack on government.

"As a result, my first thought was that there had been a serious security leak in the Office of the Prime Minister.

"It looked so real that some ministers reacted adversely to the prime minister. To make matters worse, the advertisement on TV that promoted it gave this letter the further appearance of authenticity ­ as though the prime minister had written some kind of crazy letter."

George said the incident had been reported widely around the Pacific.

"What the overseas media should remember is that what might pass for humour to the people of New Zealand and Australia does not necessarily appear as humour to the average person in the Cook Islands," Norman George said.

George said such incidents were a factor in the government pushing for the establishment of an "independent media council" that would maintain a "reasonable standard of reporting".

Radio New Zealand International reported Pitt as claiming the government was "clutching at straws" and could not take a joke.

"It¹s almost like if anyone says something that they disagree with, they try to shut them up in some way," Pitt told the radio.

"We¹ve been threatened and we¹ve got a defamation summons to appear in court; they¹ve threatened us with our licences.

"It just goes on and on and on but this latest episode is just ludicrous. It¹s like government is clutching at straws. That¹s the type of government that we currently have to live under."

Link to the spoof letter:



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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