Trump Versus Bear

Brexit, pursued by a bear

What do Britain’s EU exit vote, Donald Trump and Vanuatu have in common? Too much, actually.

When Great Britain turned its back on Europe, markets reacted predictably, shedding trillions of dollars in value. Japan’s Nikkei exchange, among the first to open after the vote result, suffered its biggest loss in over a decade and a half, knocking nearly 8% off its value in a day.

Media have been all over the calamity, reporting the unintended consequences of the UK’s knee-jerk rejection of Polish plumbers. Likewise, the international commentariat have made hay from the unprecedented—some say unforeseeable—rise of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate in the upcoming US election.

Many have asked, but few have answered: how did we get here, anyway?

People have been griping about immigrants since the dawn of time. I’m pretty sure that any self-respecting classical scholar would be able to dig up a Roman rant against those shifty Gauls tramping all over traditional Republican values and stealing Roman jobs.

Donald Trump has been angling for a seat in the Oval Office since 1998. But as long as we were willing to listen to reason, he never stood a chance. Nor did the ideas propounded by the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.

Social media changed that. The sudden flood of counter-factual, exclusionist, biased, fear-mongering noise—don’t call it information—that floods our Facebook timelines has subverted our conception of how things are, and how they could be.

This isn’t accidental, nor is it new. Continue reading

Shots for an upcoming series on China.

Rising Buddha, Perching Crane

Chinese triumphalism may seem strident at times, but it’s not entirely unwarranted

The development of China in recent decades is best considered as geography, not landscape. The combination of market forces with what was coyly labelled ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has achieved something previously unimaginable.

At the end of nearly a century of conflict and unrest culminating in the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to picture China at peace, let alone prospering.

Today, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Most people still think that China’s great wonders are the Forbidden City and its Great Wall. But these are dwarfed by its current transformation.

The pastoral arcadia that characterised its classical landscapes is gone.

Where cormorants once preened on posts on the Yangtze’s shores, the horizon is now punctuated by steel construction cranes perched atop half-completed buildings.

They are almost literally everywhere. In the suburbs of Hefei city, I counted 32 of them outside my train window. Continue reading

Foreign Affairs officials speak with a Tongan journalist in the foyer of the ministry.

No apologies, but open eyes

As it does every couple of years, China has invited media professionals from across the Pacific islands to pay a two-week visit to their country.

Part junket, part professional development exercise, the tour is clearly designed to soften views concerning China and its engagement with the rest of the world.

And in important ways, it’s working.

Only one of the Pacific islanders has visited China before, but the first days in Beijing offer some predictable experiences.

In almost comical irony, no photos are allowed at the entrance to the Xinhua News Agency building. One photographer is politely but firmly asked to delete two shots he’s already taken.

Asked why, a minder simply laughs, apparently in appreciation of the absurdity. He says, “I don’t know,” in a tone suggesting that there’s no point in him inquiring.

But the number of unexpected events is, well, surprising.

The delegation is met by senior officials within the Foreign Affairs and Commerce Ministries, and though it’s nearly impossible to judge progress from a single meeting, delegation members were left with the impression that they were being taken seriously.

Even if taken only as a matter of protocol, the level of official engagement is far higher than seen in visits to western nations. Then again, the respective roles of media and government are far more closely aligned in China than elsewhere. It could just be the done thing.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to have a serious discussion about Chinese lending and commercial activity in the Pacific with people in a position to speak with authority. Continue reading

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Letter from a ‘foreign news outlet’

Dear Quartz;

I’d like to thank your Asia correspondent Steve Mollman for lumping the Vanuatu Daily Post in with the Tehran Times in his list of news outlets who ‘totally back‘ China’s South China Sea policy. Last time, it took a category 5 cyclone that wiped out half the country for Vanuatu to get any mention in the US media.

I’m just sorry that we had to get mentioned in such a flatly jingoistic article as this.

Our newspaper doesn’t ‘totally support’ any of China’s policies. We’re also not crazy about a lot of American policies in the Pacific, and Australia—described by George W. Bush as the ‘sheriff’ in our neck of the ocean—well, they don’t get many hurrahs from us either.

Frankly, nobody seems to notice us until we’re underfoot.

But when our Prime Minister endorses China’s South China Sea policy, we report on that. Because it’s noteworthy and in the public interest. That’s what we call journalism.

You might have a different definition. But that’s just you.

China makes no bones about what they expect from Vanuatu’s government. ‘We don’t have any hidden agenda,’ one diplomat told me. ‘We give you aid, and you support our policies. That’s how it works.’

That, I’m afraid to say, is the reality in this country, which still ranks among the Least Developed Nations according to the UN. Virtually all aid comes with geopolitical strings attached, no matter what the source. And Vanuatu, poised on the edge of the Coral Sea, only a short flight from the populated coast of Australia, is of strategic interest to China and the USA alike.

It may be galling for us to live with the realisation that we’re only getting new roads, wharves and airports because of their strategic value to our superpower neighbours. But what choice do we have, realistically?

The plight of small countries throughout the Pacific is to be viewed as little more than squares on a pan-Pacific chessboard.

The last time this game got played out in anger, our nation served as the staging ground for the Solomon Islands campaign. Over the course of World War II, over a million US servicemen passed through the Espiritu Santo military base.

Michener’s classic Tales of South Pacific is largely set there.

In 2017, the Shanghai Construction Group will complete construction of a brand-new 360 metre wharf on that island. It seems China’s memory is a little longer than others’. Probably because they suffered more—and longer—than most other nations at that time.

Not to put too fine a point on it, even if Vanuatu is dancing to the tune of a new master, not much has changed in the great game. In the mean time, excuse us if we feel the need to report the news.

Hugs,


Dan McGarry
Media Director

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The reporter is not your friend

[Originally delivered as a speech on World Press Freedom day]

The reporter is not your friend—and you should be glad of that.

Well, okay, the reporter can be your friend, but she’s the honest friend who tells you yeah, your butt does look big in that. He’s the friend who stands between you and that bully and says, ‘You don’t have the right to speak to her like that!’ And then turns to you and says, ‘And neither do you.’

The reporter is the friend that tells you what your other friends are saying about you. Whether you want to hear it or not.

The reporter is the friend who tells you what you did was wrong, and who still visits you in jail. They don’t hate you when you don’t agree; they don’t like you just because you do.

It never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt for people to see their name in the headline. Good news or bad, it’s a shock.

And it never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt to put your name in the byline day after day. By far, the response to the work we do at the Daily Post is positive. But when the response is negative, you feel it deeply. Continue reading

Satellite and internet technology make it possible to monitor fishing vessels nearly in real time. Vanuatu maintains a 24/7 surveillance regime for all vessels licensed to fish in its EEZ, as well as a global watch on all Vanuatu-flagged fishing boats.

A WATCHING BRIEF

Tucked away in the corner of an otherwise nondescript building in Paray bay in Port Vila is an office that quietly buzzes with activity. Fisheries Compliance Manager William Naviti and his team operate a 24/7/365 monitoring service that tracks all fishing vessel activity in Vanuatu’s waters, as well as keeping tabs on Vanuatu-flagged fishing boats wherever they are on the planet.

In 2014, approximately 50 long-liner vessels caught an estimated 6,636 tonnes of tuna and related by-catch, generating nearly 800 million vatu in value, including roughly 90 million vatu in government revenue.

Albacore represents the lion’s share of the catch, over 70% in all. Another 15% is Yellowfin tuna, with a further 2% or so belonging to Bigeye. The remainder is by-catch—game fish species whose feeding habits are similar to tuna.

All fishing vessels licensed to operate in Vanuatu’s Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, are required to carry radio beacons which send a constant signal to a satellite-based system that tracks where they are as well as what they’re doing.

Sophisticated logic can differentiate between a ship cruising to its chosen fishing grounds, and one that is actively fishing. It can spot when two ships meet and if they attempt to transfer catch, crew or contraband.

The system, developed by the Forum Fisheries Agency, is an international tracking service. This is critical, because it means that dodgy operations can no longer go jurisdiction-hopping—jumping from one country to another one step ahead of enforcement agencies.

A 50-inch high definition display shows every vessel in or near Vanuatu’s waters, and a coloured flag indicates their status. Each vessel’s path over the last 24 hours is run in a loop, with current position constantly updated. The result image is of a cloud of tiny green markers repeatedly zipping north and south like dragonflies across a pond.

In their midst, a couple of yellow-flagged vessels are visible. These are ships that are noteworthy for any reason: they’ve recently approached other vessels, or their license status is unverified, or similar. Not a problem necessarily, but worth watching.

On top of all this float one or two icons glaring angry red. One such has an outstanding license infraction in Solomon Islands. Another is a false alarm; the FFA hasn’t received the ship’s license information yet due to delays on the Vanuatu side of things, so it thinks the ship is operating illegally.

The alert in this case is unneeded, but it’s a good example of how closely we are able to watch those who take fish from our waters. There have been a number of fines laid in the last year, mostly brought about by failures to report activity.

Fisheries staff declined to discuss specifics, but confirmed that there have also been successful prosecutions in recent years. Continue reading

A recent tour of the Sino-Van fisheries plant in Blacksand showed that public concerns have been misplaced.

Bigger Fish to Fry

The Sino-Van Fisheries Ltd fish sorting plant in Blacksand has drawn the ire of countless local residents. Many of the fears expressed are ungrounded in fact.

Will it stink? Yes. Will it destroy the foreshore ecology from Blacksand to Devil’s Point? Not even in the worst-case scenario. Will it draw sharks? No. Will long-liners drag their anchors across the international internet cable? No. Will innumerable decrepit long-liners crowd Vila Bay? No. Will these vessels pollute the bay? Yes, but no worse than cruise ships and domestic transports already do.

None of that is to say that we shouldn’t be worried. We just need to draw a clear line between outright NIMBY-ism and legitimate concern.

The Daily Post toured the fish plant last week and spoke at length with company officials. The parent company, CNFC Overseas Fishery Co. Ltd, which holds a 51% controlling interest in the joint venture, operates a fleet of 40 long-liner ships in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands territorial waters. So far, they have been offloading in Suva.

A typical long-liner returns to port to offload every 1.5 – 2 months. Turn-around time in port is seldom more than 48 hours. At current levels of operation, this would mean about 320 fishing boat arrivals in Port Vila every year. We would rarely see more than four vessels in harbour at any time. The average number would be one or two.

A company spokesman said that captains would simply extend their cruise if there were a backlog in port. Continue reading

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Over the weekend, I watched Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning film about a team of investigative journalists who uncovered a story about systematic child abuse and how their society’s institutions protected the abusers. It’s an agonising—although beautifully told—story about daring to speak the truth.

But I was on the verge of jealous tears over the resources the Boston Globe lavished on its investigative reporters. In one scene, the newly appointed editor meets with the Spotlight editor and is told that this team of five journalists(!) typically take up to a year to research, investigate and write each story series.

As an old Yorkshireman famously said: Luxury.

The vast majority of the incredible run of stories Spotlight published on the Boston child abuse cover-up (200 in a year!) were records-driven. Yes, there were tons of interviews and mile upon mile of plain old legwork. But without documentation, their pieces would have been little more than hearsay, and the stories would likely never have run.

Everyone who’s spent any time at all thinking about media in Vanuatu, or anywhere in the developing world, for that matter, will instantly recognise that our greatest challenge is not the lack of investigative reporters, but the lack of solid, verifiable information.

Records, records, records. That may sound boring, but it’s the heart of who we are. Think about it: A complete, up-to-date and manageable voter registration list would likely have made it possible for thousands of new voters to be registered in time for the snap election earlier this year. Good records make good voters. Continue reading

Advice for a nation.

Getting Down to Business

Finally, we have a budget. It’s saddening, really, that in the face of so many other crises, actually passing a budget has barely raised a feather on the nation’s proverbial back. But there it is.

The best part of our Parliamentarians getting back to business was that they really got down to business.

Opposition Leader Ishmael Kalsakau and his colleagues organised a pre-budget workshop, spending the better part of a week preparing. They arrived in the chamber fully loaded and ready to fire away at the Government’s spending decisions.

The budget debate was broadcast live and streamed over the internet. Anyone who watched it was treated to a novel display of political theatre. Once we got past the irony of watching senior members of the Opposition opposing a budget they were instrumental in creating, it was genuinely refreshing and encouraging to see the pointed questions and quiet ripostes that filled the debate.

It also became painfully clear that even some veteran politicians are not yet fully-fledged parliamentarians. A lot of work still needs to be done to bring this new crop of MPs up to speed with the formal processes of government.

Outside the chamber, things have been moving quickly as well. They have to. There are still many unresolved crises. Continue reading

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We stand with Florence

I don’t always like my job, but I always love it. There are times when relating the news of the day is fraught with tension, and unpleasant in the extreme. But as long as we publish without fear or favour, I can reconcile myself to the stress.

But every now and then, you get a story of real courage and—yes, I’ll say it—heroism like that of Florence Lengkon. Her courage has catalysed a response that gives me hope for this country. Not only have people stood with her in opposing the bullying tactics of a small number of out-of-control people, but they’ve also united in their opposition to all violence against women.

This morning, someone posted a photo of Florence spontaneously helping another victim of violence. The incident took place months ago, and she never expected any recognition or reward; she was just doing what she knew to be the right thing.

People are right to be inspired by her example. If everyone had her courage and her kindness, the world would be a much better place. The Daily Post is proud to tell her story. I’m proud. We stand with Florence.