A New Zealand journalist reporting on the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru was detained for several hours Tuesday and stripped of her media accreditation after interviewing an Iranian refugee.
Nauru authorities say TVNZ correspondent Barbara Dreaver breached the terms of her visa, which limited her to reporting on the forum, an annual four-day gathering of regional leaders.
Nauru is the host of this year’s forum, as well as being the location of one of Australia’s controversial offshore detention centers, where asylum seekers are sent while their claims are processed.
In recent months, refugees on the tiny Pacific island have become so desperate to leave that they’re refusing food and water and attempting suicide, according to a joint report released this week.
Ahead of the forum, advocates urged Nauru to put the issue on the agenda, but the Nauru government has made it clear that refugees are not up for discussion.
Nauru President Baron Waqa on Saturday claimed that children were being encouraged to self-harm by their parents and advocates “just to get to Australia.”
“We tend to think … these kids are pushed into doing something they’re not aware of and the dangers of; if that is the case we are extremely worried,” he said.
‘I was not in breach’
Nauru has made it increasingly difficult for international media to report on the refugees, whose arrival on the island was part of a deal struck with the Australian government. It charges media a $5,800 nonrefundable visa fee per application, with no guarantee that any access will be granted.
The fee was waived for the Pacific Island Forum, but the number of journalists allowed to cover the forum from each country was limited to three.
Dreaver told CNN she had just started interviewing a female refugee outside a restaurant on Nauru when three police officers turned up in a truck and asked her to accompany them to the police station.
“I explained to them that we’d been told by Nauru media officials that we are allowed to interview the refugees as long as we get their permission and we don’t go into the camps to do so,” Dreaver said.
“I was not in breach of my visa because it has been part of the forum. Both our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and also our Foreign Minister Winston Peters, has brought it up, as has the President of Nauru himself at a press conference. So it’s very much part of the forum, and I did not feel I’d breached my visa.”
In a statement, Nauru’s government said Dreaver “was not ‘detained’ by police as some reports have stated, but voluntarily accompanied them while they made further inquiries.”
It added that while Dreaver had been stripped of her press credentials, she was able to remain on Nauru. The statement denied claims that journalists had been prevented from reporting on refugees.
In a statement, New Zealand’s Ardern said she was pleased Dreaver had been released.
“This government believes in freedom of the press, throughout the world, and of course that includes the entire Pacific region,” added Ardern, who is en route to Nauru for the forum. She said she would raise the issues with officials there.
Dreaver said she was no longer allowed to enter the media center and would be denied access to news conferences for the remainder of the forum.
“To have my accreditation stripped from me is quite a big deal,” Dreaver said. “I think in the history of the forum there have never been these restrictions and it’s pretty tough on the reporters who are just trying to report on issues in the region.”
She added: “They stripped me of my Pacific Forum accreditation, took the footage off my camera, and told me I’m not allowed to report on refugees until I leave.”
Before the forum, reporters with Australia’s ABC were told not to bother applying for visas to cover the Pacific Islands Forum after officials in Nauru deemed their coverage biased against the island.
In a statement, Amnesty International’s Minar Pimple said that move was a “clear attempt at suppressing critical coverage of Nauru’s government and its inhumane treatment of refugees.”
“The country’s current arrangements with Australia on refugee policy are a matter of journalistic and public interest. Going to these lengths to keep certain media out of the country is both an arbitrary, unacceptable restriction of press freedom and a telling sign of the government’s determination to keep the appalling situation of refugees in Nauru out of the news,” Pimple said.
“Hosting a pan-regional event like the Pacific Islands Forum comes with the responsibility of opening yourself up to the region’s media. The Nauru government must not dictate who should and shouldn’t be attending, nor should it be issuing guidance on what journalists can and cannot report.”
Official Australian statistics show that 219 people — 182 men, 23 women and 14 children — are in Immigration Detention Facilities (IDFs) on Nauru. This number does not account for hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers brought to the remote island by the Australian Border Force who are no longer officially in custody but remain on the island.
The report released Monday said people sent to Nauru are “among the most traumatized (experts) have seen, even more traumatized than those in war zones or in refugee camps around the world.”
This isn’t the first time Dreaver has run into trouble with a Pacific Island government. In 2008 she was detained on arrival in Fiji to cover an ongoing dispute between the island’s authorities and New Zealand. She was later deported and spent eight years blacklisted from covering the country.