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C4J notes sickening slide towards corruption and impunity

There is a story recorded in the Gospels of a man called John the Baptist. He was the prophet called by God to usher in the good news of the coming Messiah. It so happened that the man was in the habit of telling King Herod not to engage in an adulterous union with his brother’s wife. He said this so often that this greatly irritated the King. So when there was a party put up in honour of the King’s guests, a pretty lass called Salome danced so well that the King in his drunken stupor asked her to make a wish. Salome, of all that the king could offer, asked instead for John the Baptist’s head, to fulfil the wishes of her evil mother, Herodias.

The unfortunate scenario above is often the fate of any corruption fighters of today. Corruption and impunity do intimidate, maim and kill, which is why efforts should be made to weed them out from our societies.

Firstly the public should be deeply concerned that freedom of the media is being undermined and stifled, with Dan McGarry, the outspoken Media Director of the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper having difficulties renewing his work permits – simply because someone within government doesn’t like the reports he has been writing.

Up until recently, no specific media reports have been published, except for a one-sided post in YTS (known to be Mr. McGarry’s arch-nemesis), which tried to milk it for their own ends.

The final straw for Mr. McGarry seems to have been when he wrote quite a scathing report, legitimately raising serious questions of the Government, if it was honouring its own laws when it acted on the whims of Beijing to round up and handover six Chinese wanted in Beijing. Funnily, most had apparently been granted citizenship under Vanuatu’s controversial citizenship programs.

Lately – the social media has been buzzing again about reports that our members of parliament might be about to reward themselves handsomely for navigating their way through a four-year term in power with Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas at the helm.

Reports suggest that the Parliamentary Privileges Committee has come up with proposals that could see all Government Ministers and politicians scoop more than a double deal in gratuities, plus lifetime retirement support. A figure of 15 million vatu per minister was being bandied around.

Whether or not all of that information was true is still difficult to validate.  But with the authorities bent on curbing and muzzling whistle-blowers and the media, how might the public know?

With the decision by the Government not to renew Mr McGarry’s working permits, the message the government is indirectly sending is that it wants to protect and guard corruption and impunity, such that the media and the public must dig deeper and deeper if they were to truly fulfill their roles as a public watchdog.

In our 39 years of political experience there is very little to hold out for when it comes to corruption, with the exception of October 22, 2015 – the day when justice won for once, as 14 former parliamentarians were hurdled into the container city at Tropical Market.

That was meant to be the watershed moment in the fight against white collar crime and corruption in this country.

The history of media freedom (and the Ombudsman), as in many other places in the world is one and the same. Their mortality rates are often short, especially if they are genuinely true to their callings. Let’s hope this will not be the case for Mr McGarry and his permit will be granted on appeal soon.

With regards to the Ombudsman, going back a bit to our early days, since Marie-Noelle Ferrieux Patterson, we have had office bearers in there who have spent five years or more without much to show for it, in the fight against corruption.

Using the power of the media to expose unlawful activities, C4J has campaigned long and hard against injustices being committed to some of the country’s best kept treasurers within Santo bush. Very little of that gets mentioned in many other public fora.

We have even shone the spotlight on the role of the police and the public prosecutor in how they exacerbate corruption and impunity by not doing a thorough job with their investigations to hold individuals to account for their crimes.

While we may have gained little traction, C4J still feels we have a duty and responsibility to continue to stand for truth and fairness ­– values that are worth fighting for. And the media has been a trusted ally in this fight.

A great Greek philosopher reminds us: “It is in the nature of man to hang the small thieves and to elect the great ones into public office”. How true is this statement, even today!

With the help technology and the internet, what the media and C4J have been trying to help everyone do is  to reawaken people’s consciousness to their rights to know and be informed without interference. The public should not be afraid to raise the alarm if there are issues holding them back, or shutting them off from accessing services expected from publicly funded institutions of the government.

We also want everyone to recognise that we all share a finite world and the resources we have within our reach will not last forever if we are not responsible enough for our actions. If we allow people (or countries) with money to destroy these resources or systems, we effectively deprive our future generations of their right to live and enjoy the same privileges that we now enjoy. In fact, if we allow countries with more financial muscle to call all the shots, we allow ourselves to look like lame ducks.

Corruption is a cancer that must not be entertained in any shape or form. And for this to be tackled with consistency and verve, Vanuatu needs a strong voice; not only within the Opposition side of our Parliament, but also within the civil society and the media. It’s called the ‘Fourth Estate’ of any decent democracy.

We are not oblivious to the fact that there will be Salomes within the system who will be looking for someone’s head if they dared confront injustice. If the media or any other organisations that stand for the same goals and values do not raise the ante, who else will, especially when publicly funded watchdog institutions like the Ombudsman do bugger all about corruption issues?

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