Small readerships and bossy rulers can make media freedom an elusive goal
The bearded man wearing shorts and a T shirt in his sweltering office is a former leader of his country. But unlike others whose red-carpet days are behind them, Ieremiah Tabai is too stirred by a new mission to dwell on the past. Setbacks have not deterred him from trying to give his homeland of Kiribati an independent media. "I firmly believe," he says, "that you can't have democracy without it."
Even among those who wish he would dump his high-minded ideas into the Pacific, Tabai is regarded fondly. He was Kiribati's first President after independence from Britain in 1979, and for 12 years led-by most accounts-with prudence and compassion. Nor did a subsequent six-year stint in Fiji as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum spoil him. "People like his humble style," says Timeon Ioane, general manager of the government's Broadcasting and Publications Authority. "He's maintained his Kiribati ways: he walks by himself, wears anything."
But popularity hasn't helped Tabai, 52, in his efforts to shake up the nation's media, which until recently was wholly government-run. After returning from Fiji and securing a seat on the Opposition backbench, Tabai set up a radio station, which was due to start broadcasting in time for the country's last election, in 1998. Instead, Tabai and his partner in Newair, Atiera Tetoa, wound up in court charged with importing radio equipment without a license. They argued their treatment was politically motivated; the government said Tabai and Tetoa broke the law-there was no more to it. The pair were convicted and fined, and Newair remains silent to this day.
Tabai has escaped lightly compared to like-minded men elsewhere in the Pacific. In 1996, Kalafi Moala, editor of Tonga's independent weekly newspaper Taimi 'o Tonga, was imprisoned for 26 days for contempt of Tonga's Parliament when he published a story about a minister's looming impeachment before the matter was tabled. Not that imprisonment stopped the press: while in his cell, Moala smuggled out stories written on pieces of toilet paper and pages of the Bible. Now producing the weekly out of Auckland, Moala has been allowed to return to his homeland only once in the past two years, for his father's funeral. "We have our own version of Nelson Mandela," deputy editor Mateni Tapueluelu says with emotion.
Tapueluelu has his own worries. Next year, he faces two charges of defamation brought by Police Minister Clive Edwards. "I've been worried about my life," Tapueluelu says. "I feel that I'm being followed around by police." He also believes his home phone is being tapped.
Like his Tongan counterparts, Kiribati's Tabai did not cave in to pressure. When the plug was pulled on Newair, his plan B was to start a weekly newspaper-the Kiribati Newstar, which would face off against the country's only paper to that point, the government's Te Uekera. Today, the Newstar could never be confused with the world's great broadsheets. In format and layout, it's closer to a school newsletter. Its reporting staff comprises two 21-year-olds. But when the first issue rolled off the press on March 5 last year, Tabai says, "It was an important step forward for our country."
At first, many I-Kiribati were confused by the new arrival. "They would say, But Ieremiah, we already have a newspaper," Tabai recalls. "Slowly, however, they are seeing the differences." He points to a recent Newstar story that accuses the Speaker of the House, Tekire Tamuera, of bias, and to another article accusing the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Cooperatives of intransigence. Tabai says the government dislikes the Newstar but won't admit
this publicly. (The Minister of Information, Communication and Transport declined to
Newstar journalist Ester Tiwau says most of her early pieces were fluff. "But now I am doing real investigative stories," she says. At the Broadcasting and Publications Authority, the old reporter in Ioane sounds envious of the Newstar's freedom to criticize the government. "Our hands are tied," he says. "The relevant Act of Parliament is very specific in giving [the government] the authority to intervene any time that it feels a story isn't right."
In pursuing freedom of the press, Tonga's Tapueluelu has found a kind of freedom of his own-from self-doubt. "I truly believe in the work. I believe
in the morality," he says. "And every time I feel I'm being
persecuted by cops or government, I feel I'm being blessed."
In his quieter way, Tabai is just as passionate. But will he be less so if he's in government after the election due next year? "It is possible," he says, "but the Newstar will not change. I'm not the editor. I do not decide which stories run and which do not." That, in a perfect world, is not the role of a publisher. And Tabai hopes Kiribati will be a better place if that is never again the exclusive role of the government.
-With reporting by Michael Fitzgerald/Tonga