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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.

Florence Lengkon was forcibly removed from her place of work, assaulted, threatened and made to apologise for comments made on social media critical of the behaviour of local taxi and bus drivers.

The Bullying Stops Now

This sh*t has to stop.’

Such intemperate language rarely appears in these pages, but in this particular case, it’s a bit of an understatement. These were spoken by the person who informed us of the reported abduction down at the seafront yesterday.

Florence Lengkon has bravely stood up against what appears to be a clear case of mafia-like violence and intimidation, and we stand with her. Her story, which appears in today’s newspaper, is far, far too common.

We can show compassion for the difficult circumstances, agree that nuance is required to fully understand the tensions and solutions to a complex question of economic and social justice. We can admit there are good reasons people are angry.

But first, we have to stop threatening and beating people.

It is utterly, criminally reprehensible for any man—for any reason—to strike any woman, let alone the slip of a girl who features in the headlines today.

And for what? Because she called some taxi and bus drivers ‘big headed’ and ‘unprofessional’.

Words are simply not sufficient to describe how despicable, how cowardly and how damaging this kind of behaviour is. Such actions bring shame to the nation.

What Ms Lengkon described to us yesterday was unacceptable in any society, under any circumstances. Just as we did with corruption in politics, the perpetrators must be found and made to face the consequences.

There’s no point waiting for the police. This bullying has to stop now. And the way it stops is for people to stand together. Continue reading

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous 'storian' in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

Remembering Cyclone Pam

A boy runs for cover as a heavy wave breaks outside Port Vila's market house.

I remember the shell-shocked feeling that first morning, the packs of young men wandering nervously through the town, the anxious, almost giddy feeling as we tried to understand what it was we’d just gone through.

I remember the smiles in the wreckage. The incredible hospitality that people showed to us as we took their photo and tried to convey to the outside world just how desperate things were. A man with no house remaining, still welcoming us like a lord in his manor. A grandmother who’d walked 10 kilometres with her brood, smiling proudly even though she didn’t know yet whether she still had a home to go to.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember the uncertainty in the eyes of the children. Their world had changed, quite literally overnight. They had no context for the shock they’d just undergone, no experience to compare this with. Lord willing, they will never see anything comparable again. I remember how they soldiered on without a word of complaint.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember a small boy up in Malapoa waetwud. He’d donned a spare pair of work gloves, and was doing his best to help the men dig out from devastation.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember a board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People, standing in the wreckage of their office, tears streaming down her face. But still unbent, defiant.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember three year-old Rachel. Holding a rake in her hands, defiantly standing on the bare foundation of her home, which had been washed clean when a municipal water tank broke and inundated her small community, destroying seven households.

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous 'storian' in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous ‘storian’ in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

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Getting off the grey list

In 1989 the G-7 group of countries decided it was time to act together to address the increasingly serious problem of money laundering. They created what became known as the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, or FATF. Prompted as they were by the extraordinary boom in illicit cash brought about by America’s love affair with cocaine, the measures weren’t taken particularly seriously by tiny tax-haven nations such as Vanuatu.

Then came September 11th, 2001. What had been seen as a first-world problem suddenly became a global concern. No longer just a pastime for drug lords and tax cheats, money laundering was identified by the USA as a prime source of financing for terrorism. In the months immediately after the terror attacks on New York, a series of measures were brought into play that made it clear that the world was going to play along to the anti-money laundering tune.

In 2002, Vanuatu was faced with a choice. It could either clean up its act, or it could lose the ability to trade in US dollars. The consequences of failure were dire, to say the least. Within months, a number of offices with dozens of nameplates on their door disappeared.

In fairly short order, Vanuatu drafted a legislative and law enforcement framework that quelled the international community’s worst fears, and got the country moved from the infamous grey list of ‘non-compliant and uncooperative jurisdictions’. In fact, Vanuatu went above and beyond the call of duty, and drafted a regime that would prove onerous actually to implement.

This decision would come back to haunt the country. Continue reading

Learning to Govern Again

What does a culture of corruption actually look like? Vanuatu.

It’s often difficult to see exactly where the rot sets in. The pressure of corruption is often quiet and always insidious. It impacts on public institutions, on their ability to manage themselves, to plan and to perform useful work.

Corruption creates a culture of impunity. Bad deeds go unpunished; good deeds and hard work go unrewarded. Each is as dangerous as the other.

2015 will almost certainly go down in the history books as Vanuatu’s annus horribilis, a year so bad we hope it will never be repeated. Between the cyclone, the drought, the collapse of government and the failure of critical infrastructure, it’s hard to see even a glimmer of light.

But we need to understand that it was a long time coming. Arguably, it all began in the days immediately after Walter Lini’s ouster, when the deposed leader and his confreres stripped the government offices bare before their departure.

Over the years, Vanuatu’s leaders have developed and defined a style of government that may have worked on the village and family level, but has condemned the country to failure. Continue reading