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Vanuatu publisher tells of brutal ordeal at hands of ‘political gang’

Marc Neil-Jones

Vanuatu Daily Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones: Upset with silence from Prime Minister's Office. Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Alex Perrottet, contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch

Almost a week after a brutal attack on a newspaper publisher in Vanuatu, allegedly involving a cabinet minister, nothing has been done and no comment has been issued from the office of Prime Minister Sato Kilman.

Marc Neil-Jones, publisher of the Vanuatu Daily Post, has weathered 17 years in Vanuatu, during which he has been assaulted, deported, locked up in jail and regularly intimidated.

The latest assault occurred on Friday, when a gang of eight men entered the newspaper’s offices, then burst into Neil-Jones’s room and brutally assaulted him. The ringleader of the gang was allegedly the Minister of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Harry Iauko.

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Neil-Jones told Pacific Media Watch today from Apia he was still recovering from the attack.

“I am covered in bruises, my head is still sore where they yanked out tufts of hear from the root, but the swelling around my neck has just gone down,” he said.

“That was a major concern, as they had their hands around my neck and were throttling me so that I couldn’t breathe.”

The Pacific Media Centre was first to break the story last weekend and was followed up by strong statements from media bodies such as Pacific Freedom Forum, International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

On Monday, the Pasifika Media Association condemned the attack with a protest letter to the Prime Minister.

‘A dozen witnesses’
What angers Neil-Jones most at present is that a minister was involved and to date the Prime Minister’s office has been silent.

“I’m angry over this,” he said. “I have been assaulted before, but this is the first time a minister has entered with a gang.”

Nor does Neil-Jones expect any action from the government.

“The fact is, the government is in a very precarious situation with the numbers game,” he said.

“If they sack or suspend Iauko, the reality is that the government will fall.”

Neil-Jones said that about a dozen witnesses had given statements to the police, but he believes nothing will happen.

“I don’t believe the Public Prosecutor will follow through,” he said.

“She hasn’t on the last two occasions, why would she now?

‘Serious reservations’
“Without an effective prosecutor who isn’t afraid of doing her job and taking on a state minister, I have serious reservations about the prospects of the case proceeding.”

Neil-Jones’s damning comments come after Transparency International’s report last year that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was “dysfunctional”.

“Nothing is ever said, nothing is ever mentioned, no one is ever challenged,” said Transparency International’s president Marie-Noelle Ferrieux-Patterson, at the time.

Vanuatu Daily Post

Vanuatu Daily Post front page on March 5.

Kilman’s official spokesman, Richard Caltona, said that something should be done, but encouraged Neil-Jones to follow the legal process.

“There’s a legal process and he should follow that,” he said.

“The Prime Minister cannot act on an emotional situation. He needs to get the full reports, and it’s also a question of whether the Ombudsman can do his job or not.”

In the meantime, Neil-Jones is planning to commence his own legal proceedings.

“We are having meetings today on how we will handle it. I have the support of a great number of people,” he said.

Ongoing feud
One unfamiliar area of support was the from Moses Stevens, president of regional media body, Pacific Islands News Association (PINA).

In the official PINA statement, issued on Tuesday, Stevens said: “Such an irresponsible attitude of a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet is nothing short of a disgrace on the minister for media and the government as a whole.”

However, the statement has not been published on PINA’s website and Stevens qualified his statement with an allegation that Neil-Jones had published a biased report on Iauko.

“It is alleged that the attack on Neil-Jones was the result of biased reporting on issues that had seemingly implicated the state minister to be on the wrong,” he said.

“Let us remind ourselves of our basic journalism rule, to always carry all sides of the story before publish/broadcast.”

Stevens and Neil-Jones have an ongoing feud over the way media should operate in Vanuatu. Neil-Jones and the Daily Post are not members of PINA, nor of the local media body Media Asosiesen blong Vanuatu (MAV).

Despite the support, the allegation drew further invective from Neil-Jones.

“You expect this from Moses Stevens,” he said.

“Most of his journalism experience has been gained from working for the government.

Opinion piece
“He probably hasn’t even read or seen the stories that irritated Iauko.”

The story in question was an opinion piece written by Transparency Vanuatu, the local chapter of Transparency International. It was based on a report, commissioned by Kilman, before he became Prime Minister.

Neil-Jones said that the confidential report, which was leaked to him, was written by the former Director-General of Lands, Joe Ligo. Among other issues, the report mentions a development deal concerning a derelict hotel site that Iauko should have put out to tender, but instead it was granted directly to personal contacts.

Neil-Jones said the piece had been vetted by lawyers and was based purely on fact.

Neil-Jones also published a piece he wrote about Iauko and the Airports Vanuatu Board. Iauko allegedly removed the board without the consent of the Minister of Finance, who has an equal controlling 50 percent stake in Airports Vanuatu. Since then, new members have been appointed to the board.

However, Neil-Jones did not go to Iauko for comment, and that is no doubt why Stevens was so critical.

“I could have got a comment from him, but I know how they operate here,” said Neil-Jones.

“Contacting him would have made no difference to the story.”

Not deterred
Neil-Jones said that Vanuatu Daily Post was really the only publication that exposed corruption, apart from Transparency International. He also said that he was getting a little tired of being the only ones.

“I’m personally getting a little too old for this,” he said. “I am 53 years old, insulin dependent, and after the last assault two years ago, my health has not been the same.”

“But I am hopeful that my journalists can follow through with it. But we have to understand that custom makes it difficult for them to be highly critical and go in for the corruption issues,” he said.

Neil-Jones is not likely to stand back, however.

“I don’t think this latest setback will deter us,” he said.

“At the end of the day, if it makes corrupt people think twice about blatantly breaking the law, then it is all in the interests of public welfare and the good of the nation.”

Neil-Jones is promoting an online petition, not only to support his stance, but to support media freedom in general across the Pacific.

“This isn’t just about me,” he said.

“It’s an attack on journalism and is a grave concern.”

Source: Pacific Media Watch item 7321

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