TODAY’S TOPIC: Without press freedom in Vanuatu the darkness breeding fear and injustice there tightens even harder.
Unlike Samoa, Vanuatu is a country enveloped in near-total darkness. Its people cannot see through it the light of freedom enlightening the minds of those living in other parts of the world.
This week, as we’re enjoying the gift of free thought we take for granted each day, the people of Vanuatu are totally unaware of what their government is doing.
So let us tell them that their government is turning a blind eye to a blatant assault on justice, which may one day reduce them all to living in abysmal fear of each other, and even of their own government.
In March this year, Vanuatu’s Minister of Public Utilities, Harry Iauko, went inside the office of the Vanuatu Daily Post with eight men, whom he then ordered to bash up the paper’s publisher, Marc Neil-Jones.
As his “thugs” were assaulting the publisher, Iauko himself stood by and watched, and then satisfied, he ordered the men to stop, and they left.
Later battered and bleeding, Neil-Jones lodged a complaint with the authorities.
This week when the matter was heard before the Public Prosecutor, Minister Iauko was found guilty of “aiding and abetting” and was fined 15,000 Vatu ($US150.)
Even from here in Apia, the sentence is so demeaning it defies meaning itself.
Seven of the eight “thugs” were convicted of assault and fined between 13,000 and 80,000 Vatu each ($US130 and $US800.)
And yesterday morning, on the phone from Port Villa, Mr Neil-Jones sounds afraid.
“I’m nervous that there is no justice in Vanuatu today,” he says. “I’m nervous that a precedent has been set.
“Now any minister can take a bunch of thugs inside a newspaper office, order them to attack the editor or publisher as he stands by, and then later, claims he was just aiding and abetting.”
Already Mr Neil-Jones sounds as though he has lost hope in justice prevailing in his country.
“I really believed we had a strong case here,” he says. “We had eye witnesses, and if we can’t get justice now, what’s the chance of anyone else getting it?
From the sad sound of his voice it’s easy to feel Mr Neil-Jones’ worries are real.
They are in fact aggravated by the notion that Prime Minister Sato Kiliman, who had insisted at the beginning the matter should proceed to a trial, did not intervene even when it was decided it would not be heard by the Supreme Court.
Made by Public Prosecutor Ms Kaykeen Tavoa, that decision meant the matter would be heard by the Magistrate’s Court which is under her jurisdiction, in which case legal representation for Mr Neil-Jones was disallowed.
Which was a big disappointment, Mr Neil-Jones says, since the “National Pro-bono Association of Australia had offered to provide a Queens Counsel (QC)” to help with the case.
“They just said no lawyer,” he reveals. “They refuse to allow me to get a lawyer. So we just dropped (the offer of a QC from Australia).”
And then hope surfaced.
It came in the form of the Minister of Justice, Mr Ralph Regenvanu, who told Mr Neil-Jones to put “all your concerns about the Public Prosecutor in writing, and pass it on to the Office of Judiciary Review Services,” of which Mr Regenvanu himself is Chairman.
“Mr Regenvanu was very helpful,” Mr Neil-Jones says. “He said they would look into the matter and see if they can overturn the Public Prosecutor’s decision.”
Mr Neil-Jones’ “concerns,” by the way, were allegations of “conflict of interests” and an “affair” involving the Public Prosecutor, among others.
But then, as it was to be expected, the Public Prosecutor would not be moved.
“She insisted the Magistrate’s Court would handle the case, and so the case remained with the Public Prosecutor.”
And why didn’t Prime Minister Mr Kiliman – knowing well that a member of his cabinet was a defendant – insist that the matter should be heard by the Supreme Court?
Well, it appears that some very serious political reasons were involved.
Before the trial, Mr Kiliman’s government was “fairly unstable with a very narrow majority of 27” in a 52-seat Parliament.
Which suggests that Mr Kiliman’s hands were held tightly behind his back so that he could not move an inch, since abandoning Minister Iauko would mean a vote of no confidence in his leadership, a possible change of government, and Public Prosecutor Ms Tavoa was well aware of this.
In the end, it is Mr Neil-Jones who suffers.
“What has happened is a clear miscarriage of justice,” he says. “All I want is justice and equality for all.
“Now for the first time in my life, I’m nervous. And for me to be nervous, it has got to be quite serious, which is why I’m seriously thinking of getting out.”
But as a Vanuatu citizen with “all my business interests here,” he is not leaving the country.
“I have to talk to my partner,” he says. “I won’t leave. Perhaps I’ll just stay in the background, get out of the media.”
Which is another sad blow to press freedom in Vanuatu, and a chance for the enveloping darkness that’s breeding fear and injustice in that country to broaden, and tighten even harder.
As for us here in Samoa, we believe we are alright. Just. Any attempt then to derail the course of justice in this country must be repelled strenuously; it must not succeed.
For justice is freedom, freedom justice, and right now we believe we have both. Indeed, we are confident that together we can make sure they are here to stay.