Two days ago, the government of Nauru released a statement confirming that they would not grant access to the Pacific Island Forum to any reporter working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This decision is wrong, and it cannot go unopposed.
On Monday night, I instructed the Daily Post’s editor to withdraw our reporter from the Vanuatu media delegation allotted to covering this event.
This isn’t a self-righteous, moralising action. It’s a survival tactic. If we allow ourselves to get into a situation where our ability to report is predicated on how positive our coverage is, then we can’t do our job.
There can be no conditions placed on the stories we tell. We don’t share our question with our interviewees. We don’t ask permission to use an on-the-record quote. We don’t revise their quotes to remove the awkward parts. We don’t allow stonewalling or delaying tactics to stop a story coming out. We don’t tolerate any attempt to divide and conquer.
We do this because if we don’t, we can’t do our job. We have to call the stories as we see them.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve published stories that were scathingly critical of our government. And just last night, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai shook my hand and smiled for a photo opp. He may have been gritting his teeth all the while, but he did it. He knows the importance of a free press. He accepts our legitimacy, however much it may discomfort him.
It’s not all bad, of course. Yesterday’s front page announced one of the bigger policy wins in Vanuatu politics of this decade. The Salwai government can be proud of its financial reforms. That’s what the people we interviewed told us, and that’s what we printed.
That’s how fairness works.
Nauru’s rulers need to begin a journey down the road to Damascus. They have compromised their principles far too many times in recent years. They have subverted democracy in deep and troubling ways in an attempt to maintain their grip on power. That will only make it worse when—not if—the next transition comes. The pressures they have placed on their tiny nation are making the situation unbearable for many who love their home and want to see it emerge from this dark period.
The problem didn’t begin with the establishment of a refugee detainment centre on the island. But it got much worse as a result of it. Politically embarrassing stories quickly began to emerge concerning living conditions, human rights abuses, lives damaged and even lost.
Yes, the ABC was critical of it. So were we. So was the Guardian, so were Fairfax and many others. So too was the UN’s human rights commissioner.
Nauru’s decision to single out the ABC is a cynical attempt to strike a blow against negative coverage without raising the ire of Australia’s government. They know there’s a hard-core anti-ABC faction within the coalition, and they’re counting on that to keep Julie Bishop from saying or doing anything of consequence to defend them.
It’s a petty and ill-considered decision, but sadly it seems to have worked.
Malcolm Turnbull’s government has to take a stand. To pass it off as a sovereign decision makes a mockery of diplomatic engagement and foreign relations. The ban directly affects the Australian people. Whether Mr Turnbull’s cabinet colleagues like it or not, more Australians get their news from the ABC than any other source. It was still the national broadcaster, last we checked.
If Australia is serious about promoting a rules-based international order in the region, then here’s a great chance to distinguish itself from China.
The media ban affects the Pacific Islands Forum, too. Dame Meg Taylor will surely have something to say about it. She is one of the most principled and capable leaders the Forum has seen in some time, so we trust her to move heaven and earth to put this to rights, and to do so in the Pacific Way.
And to our Pacific colleagues in journalism: We can’t tell you what to do. You may choose to go, and then report on the conditions in the camp. You may choose to file exclusively with the ABC. You may choose to ask every leader whether they support the ban until someone answers. You may find creative ways to get kicked out.
Standing for the independence of the media means not just accepting that others will have different approaches, but applauding that fact, even when we differ.
We will say this, though: that to accept this kind of divide and conquer tactic without so much as a murmur would be a dereliction of journalistic duty.
Whatever you do, do the right thing.