“We need to realise something: Either we speak up now and draw a clear line under freedom of speech, or we write it off in the Pacific region”
IT’S becoming far too common: Journalists and whistle blowers are being singled out and silenced as governments throughout the region allow the Pacific to slide down the slippery slope of repression. Either we act now to stop it, or we accept that in ten years, the region’s media may look a lot more like the People’s Daily News than the Sydney Morning Herald. Australia is no exception. Even now, the Coalition government is considering draconian new laws that would outlaw activity that is necessary to the proper functioning of a democracy.
In every country of the world, social media is eroding people’s sense of the truth, and undermining its importance in their daily existence. In the Pacific islands, the threat is real. [In February], three veteran journalists, all of them with spotless reputations, were detained by police on suspicion of inciting unrest. They had published the news that a magistrate who ruled against the government’s interest in a labour case had been sacked.
They were held for hours, and their phones and laptops were seized. As this editorial is being finalised, Samisoni Pareti, Netani Rika and Nanise Volau are facing the possibility of charges of incitement to sedition. This action by police, presumably with the blessing of the Fiji First government, is inexcusable. There is no possible justification for it. It is a direct assault on free speech and the freedom of the media to question the actions of public officials. We have to ask: Are the days of dictatorship in Fiji truly past? In Kiribati too, as details emerged about the tragic—and possibly preventable—sinking of a passenger ferry, we heard that a New Zealand television news crew had their gear confiscated.
This is just not on. Yes, the news media are often the bearers of bad tidings. Yes, sometimes they are the ones who dig these stories up. Yes, sometimes they make mistakes. None of this justifies punishing people for speaking their mind. The danger is greater than it has been in a decade. Media freedom pioneer Marc Neil-Jones suffered assaults, imprisonment, deportation and constant threats as he fought to build and preserve media freedom in Vanuatu. He did not do it alone.
Every time he suffered another affront, an uproar spread across the region, making it clear to the government of Vanuatu that there would be consequences for their ill-advised actions. Now, government and civil society leaders will gather in Nauru, and not a peep is heard about their government’s serial abuses of freedom of speech and human rights. Fiji subverts the entire media establishment, and nothing is said. Kiribati outright says ‘stop reporting on this story’, and aside from the usual angry squawks, nothing happens.
The very governments who claim to defend democracy and western values don’t seem as married to them as they once were. We need to realise something: Either we speak up now and draw a clear line under freedom of speech, or we write it off in the Pacific region. The right to express oneself is not granted by governments. Constitutions don’t give these rights either. They recognise them. These rights existed before we were born, and they will continue to exist whether we admit it or not. The only question, really, is how high a price do we have to pay to exercise them? Detention? Imprisonment? Deportation? Assault? This is not an abstract discussion.
The truth matters more than ever, and media professionals across the Pacific need to understand that time is not on our side. Across the globe, people are beginning to see the damage caused by Facebook’s pernicious influence on people’s perception of what’s true. It’s felt in small communities more intensely than anywhere else. A few unprincipled and unrestrained people are playing fast and loose with the truth, and ruining people’s lives in the process.
If our professional media associations were doing their job, they would set an example for others to follow. Instead, they cower, just as they’ve done in the face of government repression. And now, the worst excesses of social media are being used as justification for even more suppression from these same governments. If we don’t reaffirm this now, if we don’t repeat this chorus loud and long, we will lose our democracy. In New Zealand and Australia, in Fiji, in Kiribati, in Nauru—across the entire region— media professionals need to stand up and speak in defence of the truth.
We need to set an example for others, show them how responsible, principled, fair and fearless reporting comes about. Nobody is going to do this for us. If we don’t act, our governments will. And that won’t end well for any of us.
- Condensed version of editorial republished with permission of Dan McGarry and Marc Neil-Jones, Media Director and Publisher respectively of the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper. The Vanuatu daily first published this on 16 February, 2018.
So what’s stopping our 22 countries and territories of the Pacific from giving women 50 per cent or more of positions in national leadership? Why can’t we have 10 or 11 more Hilda Heine, the current President of Marshall Islands?
PLAIN and simple, the Pacific has a long way to go in the work of gender mainstreaming. Indeed in spite of the many colourful and enthusiastic rhetoric about women rights delivered in much fanfare over the years by our politicians and bureaucrats, statistics from the islands around the region tell the same story. A story that is bleak at best and depressing at worst.
It is nothing sort of unbelievable that just a year short of four decades after the adoption of CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, women and girls in the Pacific are still lagging behind in whatever indicators one cares to apply. In our national parliaments for instance, women currently make up only a mere 7 per cent of the total number of legislators in the Pacific. Just 40 women MPs out of the current 559 we have.
When you take this, and add figures of women in governments, boards and businesses, total women representation is at 15 per cent. Ours is the lowest in women representation in the world, according to UN Women. Story is not expected to change in the number of women entrepreneurs or those holding chairpersons or director roles in boards of corporations. Similar story is found in women’s participation in paid employment.
Up to the Pacific’s north-west, at the Federated States of Micronesia, 56 per cent of their women were part of the island’s labour force in 2000. By 2010, the number has dropped to 28 per cent. In the larger Melanesian island of Vanuatu, 71 per cent of women were in paid employment in 2000, but this fell to 61 per cent one decade later.
The FWRM in their contribution to our Status of Women in the Pacific Report special feature in this edition quoted a study by Professor Wadan Narsey that shows females in the labour force do less paid work per week on average than males, although females do far more unpaid household work.
The end result is that females do 6 hours per week more total work per week than do males. Maternal mortality is, well, work in progress. Some island states register zero maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 births, but only because their population does not even surpass the 1000,000 mark.
These include countries like the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. Papua New Guinea on the other hand, in 2010, recorded a maternal mortality rate of 710 and Kiribati has a 215 ratio. Compare that with Fiji which is at a low 59.5.
This of course is in no way to belittle the humongous effort women and gender focussed groups especially in the civil society movement have put into improving the status of women in the islands over the past decades, and longer. Most countries and territories are nearing the goal of universal primary education for both girls and boys.
Five in ten girls in the Pacific demonstrate having the expected numeracy skills, as a recent numeracy study shows. Four countries – Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa and Solomon Islands -- now have ministries specifically for women. We should not kid ourselves though.
Even those four nations, if a recent World Health Organisation study is to be believed claim very high rates of domestic and sexual partner violence. That WHO study puts Kiribati with the highest prevalence of lifetime physical and/or sexual partner violence at 70 per cent.
Fiji is a close second at about 68 per cent and Solomon Islands at a close third at around 67 or 68 percentage. The thing is this: With women making up half of our population, imagine what each of our countries are missing when only a very small number of them are being given the opportunity to take up leadership roles in all levels of our society, be in national governments, corporations, churches, sporting bodies or villages.
So apt and timely is what Sandra Bernklau, the UN Women’s Pacific Regional Technical Specialist told this magazine that when “you withhold 50 per cent of the population, you withhold 50 per cent of the economic and other potential in a country.” So what’s stopping our 22 countries and territories of the Pacific from giving women 50 per cent or more of positions in national leadership? Why can’t we have 10 or 11 more Hilda Heine, the current President of Marshall Islands?
What is stopping island nations from having thousands more successful business women like Mere Samisoni, founder and owner of Fiji’s Hot Bread Kitchen chain, or Rosemary Leona, owner of hotel and kava businesses in Vanuatu? Is it wishful thinking to believe that in the next decade, there will be hundred more women like Dr Cecilia Nembou, current Vice Chancellor of Divine Word University in Papua New Guinea? Or Dame Meg Taylor, current head of the Secretariat of the Pacific Islands Forum, or Lourdes T Pangelinan who was actually the first woman from the Pacific to lead a regional organisation when she was appointed Director-General of the SPC in January, 2000.
Why do names like trade unionist Rosine Streeter of New Caledonia, the Reverend Sereima Lomaloma of the Anglican Church in Fiji or professional tennis player Abigail Agivanagi Tere-Apisah of PNG have to be lone figures in their professions? Or perhaps the question should be, when will you the electorate say enough is enough, and that you won’t settle for nothing less than seeing concrete actions on the ground that offer a lot more opportunities and spaces or platforms for our girls and women to pursue and excel in.
Male politicians can start walking the gender talk by letting women take up at least 50 per cent of their electoral candidates, appoint women to 50 per cent or more director of company positions and that more than half of all business or entrepreneurial loans are reserved for women. Only with such concrete, practical and measureable measures on the ground could lead one to agree that there is genuine and real efforts to exploit and maximise the huge potentials women and girls can offer to the development of humanity and our various human endeavours in the Pacific.