(PINA/IFEX) - PINA is investigating threats to impose newspaper licensing in the Cook Islands and the banning of a senior journalist from covering the country's parliament. On 18 April 2001, the "Cook Islands News" reported that Deputy Prime Minister Norman George told the Cook Islands parliament: "The time has arrived when legislation should be brought into the house when (newspapers) should be licensed according to the quality of their performance."
"Cook Islands News" reported that on 17 April Speaker of Parliament Ngereteina Puna banned a senior "Cook Islands News" journalist, Jason Brown, from covering Parliament until 31 May. This followed a complaint from Deputy Prime Minister George. He claimed that Brown misrepresented his views in a report on parliamentary proceedings and continued to "distort" these views despite a request for a correction and apology. The speaker said that after considering the issue he found Brown's article "was unfair in its treatment of the deputy prime minister." He added that the "Cook Islands News" is free to send another reporter to cover parliamentary proceedings.
"Cook Islands News" editor Cameron Scott said the newspaper had quoted in full a written statement by George in response to its original report. But the newspaper had not apologised because it was unable to get a copy of the official transcript of parliamentary proceedings to check what this said.
Brown had reported that George, who is also the minister for health, had said he was "not interested" in autopsies for suspicious or unexplained deaths. This report came amidst controversy reported by the "Cook Islands News" over recent deaths and questions over the treatment provided by doctors. George, a former police officer, said that while there would be no tolerance of medical mistakes, Polynesian people do not like "loved ones being cut up" in autopsies before burial.
"Cook Islands News" said in an editorial comment that in August 1999 George had told a "Cook Islands News" reporter, "We're going to bring 'Cook Islands News' down, it's too vicious and vindictive - it publishes a whole lot of lies.... we're going to do something about it." The newspaper said: "Press licensing would rank the Cook Islands alongside Iraq, Iran and a host of shoddy African dictatorships. Wonderful company. We would remind Mr George and others in government that the media's job is not to become an extension of the official information service. Government will always want its policies presented in the 'best light', but that is their definition, not anyone else's."
Cook Islands is self-governing in free association with New Zealand, and Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens. The "Cook Islands News" is the country's only daily newspaper. It was once government run but was privatised by a previous government. There are also local radio and TV stations and non-daily newspapers published in both Cook Islands and flown in from New Zealand.
In 1995, controversy arose when the then Cook Islands government proposed a "Media Standards Bill". George, who was then in the parliamentary opposition, opposed the bill and spoke of "oppressive laws" being introduced. The government did not go ahead with the proposed legislation after public outcry, including a public petition against the planned legislation.