(PINA/IFEX) - On 30 May 2002, the news service PINA Nius Online reported that the Kiribati government has begun moves that will enable newspapers in the country to be shut down if there are complaints about them. A bill carrying the name of Attorney-General Titabu Tabane is before Kiribati's Parliament, the Maneaba ni Maungatabu, seeking to amend the Newspaper Registration Act. If passed, it will give the Registrar power, on receiving a complaint, to strike from the register and close newspapers alleged to have not met a series of standards, PINA Nius Online reported.
The legislation follows the launching of the central Pacific atoll nation's first successful non-governmental newspaper, the weekly "NewStar", PINA Nius Online said. "NewStar" was launched by a former president and current opposition parliamentarian, Ieremia Tabai, and former state-owned news media employees. It competes with the state-owned weekly "Te Uekera". Tabai launched "NewStar" after the government continued to block his efforts to start the first radio station in competition with state-owned Radio Kiribati (see IFEX alerts of 9 May 2000, 9 December and 21 September 1999). Tabai said the new legislation is intended to help the government win elections due in November.
From the Solomon Islands, PINA President Johnson Honimae called the Kiribati government's move "draconian" and obviously intended to stifle freedom of expression. He urged the government and parliamentarians to consider the implications of the move and how it will harm Kiribati's reputation internationally and regionally.
The amendment to the Newspaper Registration Act requires proprietors, publishers or printers 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 comply with this or continuing to operate 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$286) for every offence committed, the amendment says.
On 5 June, PINA Nius Online reported that the Kiribati government issued a statement in response to PINA's concerns. It denied the legislation is aimed at the "NewStar" newspaper and said the aim was to "defend 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 said it would answer concerns about a single Registrar being a political appointee by establishing a Newspaper Ethics Committee. It said this would carry "the confidence of both the newspaper and readers, and 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." The government added that there is "no prohibition of newspapers taking their cases to court if they feel that the penalties imposed by the Registrar are unfair and incorrect."