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Journalists banned from reporting on Kiribati ferry sinking

Authorities in Kiribati are blocking international journalists from entering the country to report on the sinking of the passenger ferry, the MV Butiraoi.

This is particularly worrying considering the ferry, which was being monitored by the Kiribati Government's transport division, broke in half and sank three weeks ago, killing 93 people.

The loss of so many people is a big enough tragedy for any nation, let alone the sparsely populated archipelago of Kiribati.

More people were killed in the ferry disaster than died the Grenfell Tower fire in London last year.  We felt it was worthy of covering the ferry tragedy by being on the ground.

“I've been travelling around the region as Newshub's Pacific Correspondent for more than a decade and have seldom run into issues like this.

“I've never been prevented from doing my job. But to my surprise, on arrival in Kiribati on Monday afternoon, it was made clear we were not welcome.

“Our passports were taken after we were told we didn't have a “research permit” - a recently implemented policy which, in my opinion, is intended to frustrate and ultimately hinder news coverage by foreign journalists and documentary makers.

We later learned while the policy is still being revised and developed, the fee to get a permit could be up to $5000 (US$391) and a CV and other documentation is required,” said Newshub journalist Michael Moorah.

“It could take days or weeks to process” according to one immigration officer, effectively making it impossible to cover a large breaking news event like the sinking of the Butiraoi.

According to immigration officials, the Government's recent hostility towards international press coverage appears to be rooted in the screening of a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

The country's previous President, Anote Tong, was the subject of the film, which focused on climate change in Kiribati.

In the doco, he spoke about why he'd purchased land in Fiji and the serious and imminent threat of rising seas to the future of his people. 

But his views don't gel with the current President Taneti Mamau. In November Mamau said the idea of Kiribati sinking and becoming a deserted nation was "misleading and pessimistic."

Perhaps it's not surprising then that the man behind the doco ended up being arrested by Kiribati authorities. He only escaped after fleeing to Narau.

“We did not come to Kiribati to report on rising sea levels and the country's impending doom.

“We wanted to know why a ferry sank. After having our passports taken at the border, we were told we could enter the country and that we'd have our documents returned the following day.

“We reiterated to the officials that climate change was not the focus and we were filming news, not a documentary,”.

Assuming we'd been given the all clear, we got on with the job, which included tracking down the ferry owner and survivors and filming interviews.

But what followed was a blatant attempt to stop us covering the story.

Immigration staff arrived at our hotel and demanded a meeting.

“They took us to the immigration headquarters and quizzed us for four hours. They were curious to know how we'd found out about the sinking and seemed to be unaware that it had been headline news around the world for the past fortnight.

“We were then told the sinking was "a very sensitive matter", and while the Government investigated, it did not want foreign journalists interfering or conducting interviews.

“We were asked to stop filming, and they wanted to see our interview with the survivors. After we showed them a copy, they said they wanted the original deleted. So we all returned to our hotel, showed them our computer and the deleted the footage in front of them,” said Moorah

At the time of writing, our passports have been returned and we're about to fly out of the country, but it's a great shame the Kiribati Government has taken this position on foreign reporters.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has also been told “no” after requesting to cover the tragedy.

During our brief stay in the country, we met so many people who wanted to know what really happened during that ill-fated voyage.

They wanted an explanation from their Government about why the ferry went to sea overloaded and without proper authority.

They wanted to know why it took eight days before the alarm was raised and a costly international search effort was mounted. Answering these questions was what motivated camera operator John Fleming and me to come to Kiribati.

“While we did manage to get two stories out, one of which will screen tonight, there was a lot more work to be done.

“The people here, especially those who are now without their children, their mothers or their fathers deserve some answers.

“I don't hold anything against the immigration officials. For the most part they were friendly, polite and just doing their job.

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

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

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