Aussie T.V. crew slams Kiribati detention

A member of the “60 Minutes” Australia news crew detained in Kiribati for allegedly carrying misleading paperwork has hit back at the Government, claiming their detainment was part of a media crackdown in the country. 

Last week, reporter Liam Bartlett and the crew were detained under house arrest in their hotel by the Kiribati Government for giving “false and misleading information on the purpose of their visit,” the spokesperson said

But Ben Bohane, Australian photojournalist and TV producer who was with the crew claims the opposite is true and that Government knew for two weeks that the crew were on their way to film their show.

“Despite the shrill statements put out by the Kiribati Government, 60 Minutes had put the application in before we arrived - which they claimed they had not received,” he wrote in a public post on Facebook

“They knew we were coming because we had requested an interview with the President (Taneti Mamau) two weeks before arriving and we had been in communication with the media advisor to the President well before arrival.”

He said a day after arriving, the immigration department asked for an AU$5000 permit fee, a cost few media could afford.

“This fee suggests Kiribati is starting to use the same approach as Nauru with its $8000 media visa which also has no guarantee of being approved and acts as an effective block on all foreign media coverage of the refugee detention centres,” Mr. Bohane said.

“No Australian news media can afford these fees, let alone local Pacific media. Instead we called their bluff and agreed to pay. Then they had to find another excuse to block us. It was clear they were never going to allow us, or any media, to visit.”

“60 Minutes” intended to interview the Government about Kiribati’s diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China at the end of September

While under house arrest, Mr. Bohane says Opposition Leader Titabu Tabane and the first President of Kiribati Ieremia Tabai visited the crew and told them the detainment was a “farce”.

“They told me that democracy was dying under this Government and that China will do everything to ensure this Government gets re-elected next year. 

“They cannot get their voice out on any local or state media and pleaded with us to tell the world about their situation.

“’We’re embarrassed by what has happened. We’re turning this place into a communist country. It is a sad day for democracy” they said.”

Meanwhile, “60 Minutes” says they intend to air the entire saga on November 17th on their show. 

Kiribati’s media freedoms came under scrutiny when foreign journalists were banned from the country to report on the 2018 Butiraoi ferry disaster in which 95 people including 23 students died.

The official Government report was released in October, revealing a “litany of failings” that led to the sinking ship. 

In February last year the Government blocked New Zealand’s Newshub TV crew and Pacific affairs reporter Michael Morrah from reporting on the matter, confiscating their passports upon arrival and told they did not have a “research permit.”

Writing on Newshub’s site, Mr. Morrah said the policy was new, and “in my opinion, is intended to frustrate and ultimately hinder news coverage by foreign journalists and documentary makers.”

Immigration officials then made the crew show them footage they had filmed of survivors of the ferry disaster and had it deleted.

“Kiribati's policy of stopping foreign journalists from covering such a significant event is a step backwards for democracy in this tiny nation,” Mr. Morrah said.

“It's unnecessary, draconian and does nothing to promote the ideals of openness and transparency.”

More than 18 months later, 60 Minutes’ Ben Bohane has the same concern.

“As far as I am aware, the Kiribati Government has not issued any foreign media permits for the past two years since the ferry sinking disaster in January 2018 which claimed 95 lives,” he said. 

“Now they are concerned about sensitivities around the diplomatic switch to China, for instance blocking all local media coverage of a pro-Taiwan public demonstration on Sept 27. Our attempts to access footage of the demonstration shot by an independent local cameraman were blocked.

“Does anyone know of any foreign news crews who have been granted a filming permit in the past 2 years? That should tell you something.

“This situation is less about “visa procedures” as the Kiribati Government would have you believe and more about the end of democracy and a free press there.”

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