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SocietyJune 9, 2016

Blacklisted in coup coup land: why one journalist won’t be accompanying the PM to Fiji

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When John Key flies out to Fiji today, one journalist who won’t be joining the delegation is old Pacific hand Michael Field, who is banned from entering the country. He explains how he got added to Bainimarama’s blacklist.

I’ve a long history of being banned in the Pacific. The reason why I’m unable to join John Key on his trip to Fiji this week can be traced back to 2002, when I ran into a group of British Army recruiters who were staying at the same Suva hotel as me. Hotel management put on poolside drinks and I chatted to an army doctor who said they were puzzled by the large number of recruits they examined who had sown marbles into their penises.

Bewildered, I checked with some local sources and one told me about notorious prison escapee Alifereti Nimacere, who was later beaten beaten to death by police. During the search for Nimacere, one of his girlfriends was interrogated. She claimed she did not know where he was – all she knew was that he was “a seven marble man”.

In rural Fiji, a man who regarded himself as less than adequately blessed would make a cut in the side of his penis and press a marble into it, before applying a dressing. My story on the practice found a space in most English-language newspapers on the planet.

Six years later, Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama expelled New Zealand High Commissioner Michael Green and I was sent to report on the diplomatic crisis. I arrived mid-evening at the familiar Nadi Airport immigration queue and in short order was locked up and deported.

Later Bainimarama said he had endorsed overseas media outlets that wanted to visit, but “we are not going to let in the people that we did not allow in the first place, people like Michael Field”. He has since been good to his word.

Frank Bainimarama in Auckland, September 2014. (Photo: Getty)
Frank Bainimarama in Auckland, September 2014. (Photo: Getty)

The journalists who accompany Key this week will have been checked out by Washington PR company Qorvis, whose clients include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Equatorial Guinea. Those who are approved will have been deemed harmless to Fiji’s interests.

The business of winning the appellation “Fiji Approved Journalist” is as mysterious as the process of ending up on Fiji’s immigration blacklist.

Occasionally Suva denies such a list exists but I and others, including Sean Dorney of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Barbara Dreaver of TVNZ, have found ourselves banned by Bainimarama, who remains fearful of us.

Astonishingly Fiji’s finest intellectual, Brij Lal of the Australian National University, is on the blacklist, as is his wife Padma Lal, who is perhaps the leading authority on the Fiji sugar industry.

That perhaps is the key to the blacklist; Bainimarama keeps out people who know how things are in Fiji. Accompany Key or write a soft travel piece for the NZ Herald, and all is fine.

My run-in with Bainimarama wasn’t the first time I’d been blacklisted in the Pacific; it wasn’t even the first time I’d been blacklisted in Fiji. In 1990 Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, instigator of the 1987 military coup, had me banned. I never knew why and when, sometime later, I made it into the country and got on rather well with him, he told me there had been some kind of ghost software in the immigration system that contained my name.

Old royal Tonga banned me a number of times with letters from the police minister (and the country’s official hangman) Noble Akau’ola. His successor, Clive Edwards, wrote saying I was banned for “past misreporting and false criminal accusation made against the leaders of this country”.

Asked by local journalist Robert Keith-Reid what I had done, Edwards said I had called the king a baboon. This was a surprise to me.

In 1999 I went to Kiribati in pursuit of the 17 New Zealand coastwatchers who had been murdered by the Japanese there during World War II. While I was there I also wrote a couple of other stories, one on a Chinese military satellite tracking base on Tarawa, the main island, and another about the enormous toilet wastes on the beaches. Kiribati President Tebaroro Tito gazetted me as “an undesirable immigrant” and had me banned in retaliation.

Later President Anote Tong, who kicked out the Chinese, reversed the decision, telling me that the toilet story had made a difference in a country where open defecation was a major public health issue.

Nauru, the most troubled state in the Pacific, has banned me along with almost every other journalist.

As he heads to Fiji, John Key has breathed new life into the much loved Suva insult “clueless in coup coup land”. He says that the 2006 coup in which Bainimarama seized power is “ancient history”. Little surprise, then, that he cannot remember his position on the Pliocene Epoch Springbok tour.

Key claims, based on the “advice we get”, that Bainimarama is popular: “I’m not saying it is absolutely perfect, but there are probably quite a few countries that have a form of democracy we wouldn’t see as perfect.”

Key will be accorded a guard of honour from the Republic of Fiji Military Forces – the very people who installed Bainimarama onto the ancient throne. Will they be marching with their K2 and M16 weapons, the ones they used in the two coups of 1986 and 2000 and 2006?

Or will Fiji’s éminence grise, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, display some humour and have the boys Present Arms with their brand new AK-74s and rocket propelled grenades, given to them by Russia just ahead of Cyclone Winston.

Moscow gave not a single ruble in aid following that disaster, by the way.

New Zealand and Australia – whom Bainimarama wants kicked out of the Pacific Forum – poured in resources, personnel and money. And this is what Key is cashing in on now.

Without even knowing it, Key is rubbing Bainimarama’s nose in Suva’s discredited “Look North” foreign policy which was to see Fiji reject old friends for new ones like Moscow.

Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum, who really runs the show, are a kind of unelected politburo. Only last week they had opposition politician Tupou Draunidalo kicked out of Parliament until 2018 when she correctly called Education Minister Mahendra Reddy an idiot.

Draunidalo, step daughter of the late Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra overthrown in the 1987 coup, departed the house thus: “So as PM Winston Churchill once told the fascists and Nazis of Europe – ‘Do your worst and we will do our best.’” By seeking out and talking with Draunidalo, Key could expunge himself of the tag “clueless in coup coup land”.

I hope John Key has a good and productive time in Fiji: its people are some of the world’s finest. They just happen to be cursed by the very people presenting arms to him.

More by Michael Field:

Revealed: New Zealand’s enormous 60-year, 25 million tonne fishing lie

Me and Jürgen Mossack: Chasing the Panama Papers through the South Pacific in the ’00s

How China’s illegal fishing armada is plundering the South Pacific

Tony Veitch’s decade in denial

Michael Field is the co-author (with Tupeni Baba and Unaisi Nabobo-Baba) of Speight of Violence: Inside Fiji’s 2000 Coup (Reeds 2005) and the author of Swimming with Sharks: Tales from the South Pacific Frontline (Penguin 2010)

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