A Chinese base in Vanuatu, or another Fairfax beat up?

April 13, 2018

Should Australia be concerned about a rumoured Chinese military expansion in the Pacific? Or is it yet another distraction from the Government’s domestic problems? Political editor Dr Martin Hirst investigates.

First published on Independent Australia Wednesday 11 April

ON MONDAY this week. the Fairfax papers and websites ran an “exclusive” story with the alarming headline ‘China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications‘ — but is the story accurate? The lead par was an insistent and alarming allegation that China was planning a naval base in Vanuatu,

‘… that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep.’

However, in typical fashion – that we’ve come to expect from mainstream journalists covering the “security” round – the next two pars walked back the suggestion and sourced it to “senior security officials” in Canberra. In other words, the reporter, David Wroe, had been given a “drop” a background briefing by an Australian spook, because the Government wanted to float the idea and get a reaction.

‘While no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu’s government, senior security officials believe Beijing’s plans could culminate in a full military base.’

The tell that this was a planted story is in the lack of detail and the vague sourcing:

‘The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington.’

The Vanuatu Government was quick to issue denials and even labelled the Fairfax reports as “fake news”.

Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said rumours of discussions with China over a military base were false.

We are a non-aligned country. We are not interested in militarisation, we are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country,” Mr Regenvanu told the ABC.

However, David Wroe’s story still had the effect desired by the Australian “security officials” who briefed him. Within hours, PM Turnbull was able to front the media to express Australia’s concern at the – still unproven – rumours.

We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours,” Turnbull bloviated.

This is an interesting position and an even more puzzling definition of “foreign”. The United States operates more than 20 military bases across the Pacific – from Hawaii to Japan and many ports in between – so why isn’t this alarming to our Prime Minister?

And this is what is really ironic and cynical about Turnbull’s concern: there is – as yet – no Chinese military base in Vanuatu, yet the United States operates permanent military bases throughout the Pacific, including in Australia, Japan (21 bases), Guam and South Korea. Read the rest of this entry »

Another Media Assault in Vanuatu ~ Absolutely Necessary? ~ UpDated

March 5, 2011

by Dr Mark Hayes

Updates as at April 7, 2011 ~

RNZI reports on Marc Neil-Jones’ reaction to the reported prosecution of Hon Harry Iauko and his associates –

It’s not easy for them because they still can’t sack or suspend Iauko without the government falling. So the easiest way for them to handle it is to let it go through due process through the courts and hopefully if there is a conviction then they are going to have to make another decision on whether he is suspended once a conviction is handed down.

Transparency International Vanuatu wants Hon the Minister suspended pending the outcome of any court cases for the alleged assault of Mr Neil-Jones. That’s what often happens when, say, a public servant is charged with some offence.

The International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific office also issued a statement welcoming the prosecution of Hon the Minister:

The IFJ welcomes indications that Vanuatu’s authorities are taking steps to observe the rule of law and deal with the case,” IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.

“Enacting proper legal procedures is essential in order to send a clear message that intimidation and assaults on journalists and media workers will not be tolerated. This case is a test of Vanuatu’s commitment to uphold the right of media personnel to safety and protection.

My position was, and remains, that Hon the Minister should be suspended from all Ministerial and Parliamentary duties pending the outcome of any court cases, and if that results in the Kilman government falling, tough. He, and his associates, should have thought through the probable consequences before they paid their visit to the Daily Post’s newsroom.

Updates as at April 6, 2011 –

Both Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat and RNZI have reported that Hon Harry Iauko and his associates have been charged over the March 4 alleged assault on Vanuatu Daily Post publisher, Marc Neil-Jones.

PacBeat’s April 5 story, Vanuatu minister to face court over alleged assault, is the most comprehensive, with comment from Mr Neil-Jones and Richard Kaltongga, an advisor to Vanuatu PM, Sato Kilman.

Radio Australia News earlier also ran the story but said that the alleged assault occurred in January (ouch!).

A later RA News story has the same transcript as PacBeat’s longer story.

RNZI’s stories are here and here.

PacBeat also interviewed Lisa Williams-Lahari, International Federation of Journalists Pacific Media Human Rights and Democracy Project coordinator, who said she welcomed the charging of those allegedly involved in Mr Neil-Jones assault.

Lisa Williams-Lahari ~ RNZI pic

The Pacific Freedom Forum also issued a later statement:

“The Vanuatu Police investigation into this matter has taken a month, and the Pacific Freedom Forum welcomes today’s hearing as a significant sign of progress. We now await the matter’s prompt passing through the Vanuatu legal system,” says PFF chair Susuve Laumaea of Papua New Guinea.

“Observers internationally were concerned that the alleged assault of Mr Neil-Jones would join other reported attacks on Pacific media and journalists and disappear into a ‘culture of impunity’, with nobody being charged and the matter disappearing, until the next time,” says Laumaea.

“We now call on all observers to let the Vanuatu legal system deal with this matter, and we also call on the media to report this matter’s passage through the courts with appropriate professionalism,” Mr Laumaea said.

“Given the international attention and condemnation the alleged assault attracted, no doubt this will be a test for the Vanuatu authorities to demonstrate that nobody is above the law, and also is a demonstration of how similar attacks on the media in other Pacific countries should be handled,” says PFF co-chair Monica Miller, of American Samoa.

“We commend the perseverance, courage and professionalism of Neil Jones and Daily Post Editor Royson Willie, as well as those officials who upheld due process into the complaint.” she says.

(Starting Tuesday, March 8, 2011, 7.45am AEST)

Savea Sano Malifa

The Pasifika Media Association (PasiMA) has set up an On Line petition headed Stop Government Violence Against Journalists in the Pacific Islands.

PasiMA’s Chairman, respected Samoa Observer Publisher, Savea Sano Malifa, has written a very strongly worded letter to the Vanuatu Prime Minister, Hon Sato Kilman, (PasiMA-Vanuatu-letter).

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) also issued a statement on Tuesday, March 8 PINA President statement 2011 (edited). Here’s a RNZI report on the PINA statement.

And Dr David Robie, extensively quoting Mr Neil-Jones, responded to PINA’s statement, with its insinuation of bias by the Daily Post.

Reporters without Borders also issued this strong condemnation of Hon the Minister’s ‘visit’ to the Vanuatu Daily Post.

(Some More UpDates at the bottom of the main Post.)

The Vanuatu Daily Post in Port Vila ran the story, below, on its front page on Saturday, March 5, 2011.

Vanuatu Daily Post March 5 2011

The story is reproduced in full below, and following it is a commentary by the former Vanuatu Daily Post Editor, Kiery Manassah, now a postgraduate student in Australia.

On Friday afternoon, March 4, the Daily Post’s Publisher and staff received a ‘visit’ from the Vanuatu Minister for Public Utilities, Harry Iauko, and several of the Hon the Minister’s associates. Hon the Minister or an associate reportedly proceeded to attempt to strangle the Publisher.

Vanuatu Minister Hon Harry Iauko

This isn’t the first time the Publisher, Mr Marc Neil-Jones, has been attacked over stories his newspaper has run.

In January, 2009, he was seriously assaulted by some prison officers angry over stories the paper had run about how prisoners seemed to be able to come and go at will from the Port Vila jail (Tanku mas tru to A/Prof Robie’s Cafe Pacific for this wrap).

As I started compiling this Post (2.45 pm 5/3/11 AEST), messages of outrage at this latest attack, and expressions of extreme solidarity for Marc and his long-suffering staff, were moving around several Pacific e-mail Lists.

The Pacific Media Centre and Pacific Media Watch have picked up the story, adding Marc Neil-Jones’ statement to the Vanuatu police. Pacific Scoop also has this very strong wrap and reaction story.

The Pacific Freedom Forum has also issued a very strong statement condemning the latest attack on Marc and the Vanuatu Daily Post which the Post ran, in full, on March 9, 2011.

Responding to this latest outrage is going to be a major test for both the local media association, the Media Association of Vanuatu (MAV) and the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA). The current President of PINA, and a former President of MAV is Moses Stevens. Here’s a RNZI report on PINA’s position on this incident (8/3/11, 3.30pm AEST).

Declaring my interest, I’ve known Marc for several years, and hold him and his newspaper and staff in such high regard that I’ve sent three Australian journalism students there for short professional placements since mid-2009. All had extremely productive and enriching experiences.


Marc Neil-Jones, Publisher, Vanuatu Daily Post

Is this how Government – media relations are routinely conducted in Vanuatu? Given a main player was a Cabinet Minister no less, is this how the new Vanuatu Government, led by Sato Kilman, demonstratively proposes to deal with the media?

When this kind of outrage occurs, and knowing something about Vanuatu politics, and, more broadly, Pacific politics and media affairs, I’m always thrown back on to an issue or a problem I’ve been periodically gnawing upon for several years. Many others have, to be sure, also gnawed on this issue or problem and have come to quite different conclusions or positions.

Is it absolutely necessary for these kinds of things to occur taking the very fullest and highly informed account of the contexts in which they occur?

I really do mean absolutely necessary too.

I’m no post-modernist (detest post-modernism; it’s almost a mental disease in my view) and thence I draw on very strongly informed teleological and ontological critical theory, in its narrow sense, to propose and defend my requirement for a grounded absolutely necessary explanation for significant social action.

I’m also coupling with lofty theoretical ruminations a very practical, grounded, praxeology (study or theory of actual social action; stealing the term from von Mises), a spiral of action and reflection (echoes of Paulo Freire), firmly located in (surprise surprise if you’ve read my earlier Posts here and the many Links off them) nonviolent direct action.

Included in my recent reading have been two books which have added grist to my mill.

Media Ethics Beyond Borders ~ A Global Perspective (2010) contains ten chapters which, in various ways, propose or challenge the proposition that there are, or ought to be, universally applicable standards of media ethics.

Normative Theories of the Media ~ Journalism in Democratic Societies (2009) is by several really serious heavyweights in the fields of media ethics, media studies, and journalism scholarship who also address the proposition that there are, or ought to be, universally applicable standards of media practice and ethics.

The material traversed by these two books, the references upon which they draw, and the contexts from which they emerge and to which they speak, are of vital importance to informatively considering even an outrage such as recently occurred in Vanuatu in ways which take the debate forward rather than just reproducing the tired old arguments routinely trotted out to defend or excuse these kinds of activities (variations emerge from Fiji when the regime, very rarely, bothers to defend its severe media restrictions; ‘oh, we do things differently here, this is kastom or the Pacific Way’), or are deployed by media freedom defenders, such as the Pacific Freedom Forum (on whose side I firmly locate myself; I serve on the PFF drafting group and helped draft the PFF Vanuatu statement).

Hopefully, the Vanuatu Government, the Media Association of Vanuatu, and the Pacific Islands News Association will all respond to this outrage, and/or will join with or respond to the Pacific Freedom Forum’s statement, which by no means will be the only international condemnation of the reported assault on Marc and his newspaper. These responses, or not, will generate fresh, local data for another serious consideration about applied Pacific media ethics and practices.

I’ll work up another Post to Ethical Martini traversing the current results of my reading and thinking soon.

The starting Question I would propose, though, is this (and no fudging or trivializing the issue allowed) :

Given that Hon Harry Iauko is a Cabinet Minister in a democratically elected government, and given that the Vanuatu Constitution, supporting legislation, and legitimate agencies and institutions, explicitly defends media freedom and the rule of law, why did Hon Harry Iauko feel it was absolutely necessary to pay his visit to the Daily Post’s office, in company with several associates, and conduct themselves in the reported ways they did.


Some UpDates – Starting 5.30pm AEST March 7, 2011

Transparency International Vanuatu has this comment, via the Pacific Media Centre at the Auckland University of Technology. The Pacific Scoop publication of this media release is headed ‘Sickening Display by “gang of brutes” says Transparency International’.

The International Federation of Journalists has also added its global voice of condemnation of the behavior of Hon Harry Iauko, a Cabinet Minister in the Vanuatu Government.

Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) reported that the Vanuatu Prime Minister, Hon Sato Kilman, was “… considering his options in relation to the incident”.

As the Pacific Freedom Forum, among others, has stated, PM Kilman doesn’t have too many options in this case.

Another RNZI update at 5.30pm AEST 7 March 2011… “… A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office, Richard Caltona says Mr Iauko told him Marc Neil Jones should have sought his side of the story before publishing…”

Like many Pacific news web sites, as well as entirely understandable given they’re probably still very rattled, perhaps even traumatized, by the Friday afternoon, March 4, 2011, ‘visit’ to their newsroom by Hon Iauko, the Daily Post’s site hasn’t been updated, or is patchily updated. But a quick look pulled up this story, from December 22, 2010, quoting Deputy Prime Minister, Ham Lini: Vanuatu an example of peace in the world: Lini

Then at 7.45am AEST Tuesday March 8, 2011

RNZI reports that Vanuatu newspaper publisher will seek justice if police fail to prosecute MP

Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat ran this story, Bashed Vanuatu publisher may sue cabinet minister on Monday, March 7, 2011 (not on their web site until Tuesday morning). A Radio Australia News story from Monday, March 7 (transcript of the PacBeat story, actually).

And 3.30pm AEST Tuesday, March 8, 2011

PINA issued a Statement on the attack on Marc Neil-Jones and the Vanuatu Daily Post with RNZI reporting PINA’s position. PINA President statement 2011 (edited)

Just a quick observation about the PINA release. Just like the Vanuatu government’s reported response on RNZI

“A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office, Richard Caltona says Mr Iauko told him Marc Neil Jones should have sought his side of the story before publishing

“The Minister’s comment was that Mr Jones went and published something without first getting the Minister’s opinion. However, that does not excuse his actions. We have advised Mr Jones that if he so wishes to press charges to please go ahead.”

The PINA release seems to me to insinuate that, to a certain extent at least, the Daily Post was somehow responsible for so provoking Hon the Minister that he was motivated to pay his ‘visit’ to the newsroom.

Marc Neil-Jones responded to this insinuation on RNZI on Wednesday, March 9, 2011. I also happen to know that Mr Neil-Jones also thanked PINA President, Moses Stevens, for his support in this matter.

Dr David Robie, quite rightly and very strongly, criticizes Moses Stevens’ and PINA’s statement, and reproduces Mr Neil-Jones’ reply to Mr Stevens which comprehensively refutes the insinuation of bias and provocation of Hon the Minister.

And a Radio Australia Pacific Beat follow-up story on Tuesday, March 8.

On March 8, A/Prof David Robie, on his Cafe Pacific Blog, also drew on the Transparency International Vanuatu condemnation of Hon the Minister’s actions for some strong comment of his own:

“Will Prime Minister Sato Kilman sit up and take notice, let alone purge his thuggish minister? Hardly. His majority is too slender. Self interest is the name of the game. The Vanuatu politicians will close ranks and shield their rotten apple.

This climate of impunity in the Pacific for attacks against journalists and media is outrageous,” Dr Robie writes.

I’ve said to friends and contacts, including Mr Neil-Jones, that the Vanuatu PM doesn’t have many options here.

If he suspends his mal-functioning minister pending the prompt police investigation and then criminal prosecution, or just sacks him, which is what should occur, and this precipitates another government crisis in Vanuatu as Hon the ex-Minister mobilizes his supporters and they withdraw from the government, causing the Sato government to fall, tough.

Hon the PM and Hon the Minister should have thought through the probable consequences before Hon the Minister ‘visited’ the Daily Post newsroom.


Vanuatu Daily Post, Saturday, March 5, 2011

Iauko brings disgrace to Kilman government

Publisher vows to press charges against minister

By Royson Willie

A minister of the State, Harry Iauko, led a group of men yesterday around 3pm into the Daily Post newspaper’s office and assaulted the Publisher of Daily Post, Marc Neil-Jones, as well as threaten staff of the newspaper over articles carried in the newspaper about the minister’s handling of land issues, the Airports Vanuatu Limited board suspension, Transparency International’s column and letters to editor.

All these were carried throughout the week in different issues of the newspaper.

The group led by the minister entered the Daily Post office quietly and all, including the Minister for Public Utilities went into the Publisher’s office and assaulted him at his desk.

The minister was clearly heard by Daily Post staff shouting at the top of his voice as Mr Neil-Jones was assaulted.

An angry Neil-Jones said he will be pressing charges against the minister on several counts including aiding and abetting an assault.

He said he will be pressing charges against the minister because he was the one who could have stopped the men from going into the Daily Post office to assault, but instead Iauko stood right next to him and watched the assault taking place.

A doctor’s examination on Neil-Jones found marks on his neck indicating someone had strangled him. Neil-Jones said he was grabbed in the neck and kicked.

“I was particularly angry to seek Jay Ngwele with the group because he owes me over Vt300,000 for construction work that he was paid to do but never did,” he said.

Minister Iauko even threatened the Editor of the Daily Post, Royson Willie, saying “yu wantem mi brekem face blo yu?” (do you want me to break your face?) with one of the men by the name of Nanua from North Tanna threatening the Editor.

The Editor has condemned the attack on the free and independent media in Vanuatu saying such action is a disgrace and unacceptable, especially when a state minister was involved in such completely not statesmanship action.

The men with the minister were mostly from North Tanna, Middle Bush on Tanna and Whitesands on Tanna living in Port Vila.

The thugs used a government vehicle with registration number G762 to carry out the act.

This government vehicle was driven by Iauko’s political crony, Jay Ngwele.

Police arrived at the scene as the group was leaving the office.

The details of the assault have already been given to the police who are handling the case.


Commentary by the former Editor of the Vanuatu Daily Post, Kiery Manassah, now a postgraduate student in Australia.

Published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on Monday, March 7, 2011 and On Line on March 8, 2011.

Dark scenarios confront independent media in Vanuatu

Battering a newspaper publisher because you are not happy about a certain news article will not help your cause, writes Kiery Manassah.

“…whoever’s advising these politicians, would do a lot of public good by guiding them in the proper and civilized methods and protocols… especially in how to respond to media when portrayed in the negative light.”

Once again the media bears the brunt for shinning the spotlight on so-called national leaders’ alleged misdemeanors in the discharge of their national duties. Friday’s attack on who else, but Daily Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones, is the second in less than two-and-a-half years since the last incident by Joshua Bong’s henchmen in the Force.

I wonder if any of these are being fuelled by mere jealousy because nobody, other than the Daily Post owners, could run a successful independent media business in a country that has only known and been used to hearing government propaganda; released through wishy-washy press releases, many of which regurgitated and published as news. Have a look at the other papers and see what they are covering? The reason for me saying this is because, apart from Esther Tinning and Samuel Taffo’s assault cases in the recent past, it has always been Neil-Jones, not any other ni-Vanuatu staff of the Daily Post, even though it is the ni-Vanuatu who are behind the editorial side of the newspaper. Or does this border on racism? I am having difficulty understanding this, seriously. Or was it true that those behind the attack held back on assaulting the editor Royson Willie because they feared “all hell would have broken loose,” as Neil-Jones puts it.

It is yet again, however, a cowardly attack that has no place in a modern democratic society and for anyone who cherishes peace and values respect for other people and their property—the bedrock of Vanuatu society, including Tanna where Harry Iauko and some of his bandits hail.

I refuse purposely to address anyone here by their titles because I do not think anyone of those who were part of Friday afternoon’s attack deserve any of that, let alone be where they are. They should be ashamed of themselves for stooping that low and taking out their frustrations in that manner.

Since the January 17 2009 assault when Neil-Jones was badly beaten in the same way by VMF officers responsible for the prison services, nothing has come of those police ‘investigations’. Is that a surprise to anyone? The last this newspaper knew of was even the public prosecutor was having difficulty deciding whether or not to proceed with the case in court. The official reason we were given was somehow a cut-and-paste from what the police provided when we enquired about the status of the case. And it went something like; ‘oh we need Mr Neil-Jones to clearly identify who was involved in his attack so that we can be certain that the case could succeed in court.’ I have seen and reported on cases argued in court that had barely a single shred of evidence and yet they have been able to be pushed through to trial.

This time, Iauko and his bunch of political cronies have been more bold in their approach by entering Neil-Jones’ office in full view of the Daily Post staff, albeit in a bid to scare and intimidate them; to yet again assault a man, whom to me is becoming a favourite punching bag for certain people, mostly politicians. Look, let me state it from the outset that battering Marc Neil-Jones because you are not happy about a certain news article will not solve any of your issues. Such tactics—intimidation, threats, verbal abuse and even violence will never ever silence a journalist. On the contrary such actions only serve to expose you further to closer public scrutiny. In addition such public behaviour, while demonstrating a leader’s weakness, as opposed to any strength of their character, also indicates that there might be elements of truth in the reports or letters and opinions that have been published. So whoever’s advising these politicians, would do a lot of public good by guiding them in the proper and civilized methods and protocols of how to lead a public life, especially in how to respond to media when portrayed in the negative light. In my opinion they should all be fired for allowing their minister’s emotions to take the better of them, and putting the high office of the Vanuatu Ministry of Public Utilities into such great disrepute.

I would like to offer Iauko and his friends a genuine way out to shut Neil-Jones and his newspaper up. Take him to court! Straight forward, and as simple as that. That’s how you show your strength of character by letting a competent court clearing your good name and vindicating your actions, not by taking the law into your own hands, let alone as a state minister. Does anyone still remember Nasara newspaper and how it folded? Just one lawsuit for defamation against the paper by Mr Bob Heston at Toa Farm and that has been the end of the newspaper. A precedent has already been set, which means it won’t be that difficult for anyone else to follow in that same direction. Of course there are expenses involved in terms of legal fees but that’s how you shut up a newspaper (or the media) if you genuinely believe you have been subjected to unjustified and biased reporting and you have good grounds, or feel like getting even with the media. Vanuatu is not a cowboy country ruled by thuggery and wanton behaviour.

The public and the media will be watching very closely how police handle this assault once again. Lest anyone has forgotten, wasn’t it the same person who was behind the assault of an MP towards the end of last year? And wasn’t it the same maverick who was involved in assaulting a Chinese business owner only a year ago at the former Navara store. What happened to those cases? Are the police doing anything about them or are the laws only meant to be for some people? These are serious issues, which the police have got to get their act together by not only providing an answer to, but being also able to have the backbone to stand up and demonstrate their unwavering allegiance to the public good to restore some public trust in their work.

Speaking of laws what were the actual reasons for passing a leadership code in parliament anyway that is now gathering dust? We leave it at that but I will continue in this vein in my weekend diary.