10 October 2002


Government pushes through tough newspaper laws

Incident details

legal action

(PINA/IFEX) - On 8 October 2002, the Pacific Islands news agency PINA Nius Online reported that the Kiribati Parliament passed tough new newspaper registration laws, despite local and regional criticism. Government members used their majority to ensure the passing on second reading of the Newspaper Registration Amendment Bill 2002 on 7 October, the news agency said. This gives powers to a registrar to deregister and stop the publication of newspapers that face complaints.

Newspaper registration previously involved submitting a number of administrative details, such as the address of the publication and its publisher's name. Attorney-General Tiitabu Taabane revealed in Parliament that under the amended act, the post of a newspaper registrar is now transferred from his office to the government's Ministry of Communications and Information. In addition, a commission appointed by the minister is established to deal with complaints against a newspaper.

The commission will report its findings on these complaints to the registrar, who will then have the power to deregister a newspaper if it is deemed to have breached the act. Under the amended act, proprietors, publishers or printers are required to:

- print nothing which "offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling";

- present content with "due accuracy and impartiality";

- where an article "contains matters affecting the credibility or reputation of any person", ensure they can respond in the same article.

Proprietors, publishers or printers deemed not to have complied with these regulations, and that continue to publish after the registrar has struck them from the register, will be deemed guilty of an offence. In the case of a continuing offence, there will be an additional fine of A$500 (approx. US$274) for every offence committed, the amendment stipulates.

Opposition members strongly objected to the bill. They said it will stifle views and will give the government the right to control private and independent newspapers, PINA Nius Online reported. They also pointed to the passing of the legislation in the last days of Parliament, before full campaigning begins for a general election on 29 November.

President Teburoro Tiito told Parliament that a newspaper may bring proceedings to a court of law if it is not happy with the decision to deregister it. But critics say this could mean a newspaper is unable to publish for months, until its case is decided.

President Tiito also said that newspapers are free to report on any story. However, they should offer "right of reply" to individuals before those individuals are criticised in print. President Tiito said that there is a need for fairness, justice and responsibility on the part of newspaper publishers and journalists. The bill will be assented to by the president before it becomes an act.

PINA is among the critics of the legislation. PINA President Johnson Honimae called the new law "draconian" and said it will stifle freedom of speech and expression in Kiribati. He also pointed to the record of the current government, noting that it has already blocked the establishment of the first non-governmental radio station in the capital, Tarawa, and stopped a critical international journalist from entering Kiribati (see IFEX alerts of 10 October, 11 and 5 September and 9 May 2000 and 29 November 1999).

Honimae said one target of the legislation appears to be the "Kiribati Newstar", the country's first successful non-governmental weekly newspaper. The weekly competes with the country's other newspaper, the government-owned weekly "Te Uekera". The "Kiribati Newstar" was founded by Ieremia Tabai, a former president. Tabai is also a former secretary-general of the region's main inter-governmental organisation, the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, based in Fiji. He launched the "Kiribati Newstar" after his efforts to start a radio station were blocked. He is now an opposition parliamentarian.

After earlier criticism, the government said the legislation is aimed at "defend[ing] the ordinary person (little guy) from false and malicious reporting by newspapers, especially those that (...) operate more as free handouts or 'flyers' than as commercial newspapers." The government stated it would answer concerns about a single registrar being a political appointee by establishing a newspaper ethics committee. It noted that this would carry "the confidence of both the newspaper and readers. Aggrieved persons may file their complaints to this committee before it can recommend to the registrar whether or not the newspaper should be de-registered."

Kiribati is a central Pacific atoll nation of 85,000 people, living on small islands scattered across an exclusive economic zone covering 3.6 million square kilometres of ocean. Kiribati regained its independence from British colonial rule in 1979.


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