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Publisher assaulted following controversial article on cabinet minister

(PFF/IFEX) - 5 March 2011, Rarotonga, Cook Islands - The Pacific Freedom Forum calls on Pacific leaders and the Vanuatu government to distance themselves in the strongest possible terms from the serious assault of Vanuatu Daily Post Publisher, Marc Neil Jones, and threats against "Daily Post" editor Royson Willie on Friday 4th March 2011. The attack was initiated by a group of men led into the Daily Post offices by Vanuatu cabinet minister Harry Iauko, and was reported on by the "Daily Post" in its Saturday 5 March issue.

Neil Jones was left shaken and with visible injuries after he was struck to the head from behind, kicked, and strangled by his assailants during the assault. The Minister who witnessed the attack, which took place in Neil Jones' office, had screamed abuse and threats over the "Daily Post" exposure linking him to maladministration in Port Vila. The men also confronted and threatened "Daily Post" editor, Royson Willie.

The "Daily Post" documented the attack in its Saturday newspaper and has filed a statement with the Police. It is the second bashing of the newspaper publisher in recent years.

"The Pacific Freedom Forum calls on the Vanuatu Government, other Pacific government leaders, and development partners, especially those based in Port Vila to denounce this vile attack and distance themselves from this shameful thuggery," says PFF chair Susuve Laumaea of Papua New Guinea.

"The role of the media as the fourth estate, the fourth arm of governance supporting a watchdog 'eyes of the public' function on the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive governing arms of a country, is under threat of being trampled into fear and silence across the region. At a turning point in Pacific history, we call on our leaders to uphold the rule of law, not take it into their own hands and turn to vigilante justice."

Laumaea says the assault on Neil Jones, who is already ill and semi-retired from his publishing role with the "Daily Post", "is more than a violent act of cowardice. It is a crime in breach of the Vanuatu Constitution and the Leadership Code of Vanuatu, and sends a chilling signal to other Pacific leaders and development partners that their silence is being taken as support for the the systematic abuse of human rights and in particular on the right to freedom of expression and information in Vanuatu," he says.

"The manner in which the Minister and his team went by government vehicle, in open view of the general public and 'Daily Post' staff, and of a government official has brought shame onto himself, his office, and his country. We say the government should suspend Harry Iauko from all Ministerial and Parliamentary duties and responsibilities pending the final outcome of the police investigation, including any prosecutions arising. Any public servants involved should also be immediately suspended."

"The Pacific Freedom Forum stands with the Media Association of Vanuatu and our global freedom of expression partners in total outrage at this latest and extremely serious incident threatening media freedom and Government - media relations in Vanuatu," says PFF co-chair Monica Miller of American Samoa.

This is not the first time Neil Jones has been assaulted by Vanuatu government employees. In January, 2009, he was bashed by a group of prison guards angered by stories in the Vanuatu Daily Post implicating them in the death of a prison escapee and mismanagement of the Port Vila Jail. In 2001, Neil Jones, who is a naturalised citizen of Vanuatu, successfully challenged his illegal deportation from Vanuatu after the then government was angered by his reportage on corruption and transparency.

The Pacific Freedom Forum also calls on the Vanuatu Police to act on the detailed statement from Mr Neil Jones, to promptly and thoroughly investigate this outrage and bring all those responsible before the courts without delay.

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