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Parliamentary speaker lifts ban on reporter

(PINA/IFEX) - On 25 April 2001, the "Cook Islands News" confirmed that the speaker of the Cook Islands Parliament, Ngereteina Puna, had lifted his ban on "Cook Islands News" reporter Jason Brown covering parliament. This decision follows an apology printed on the front page, from the newspaper to Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Norman George, over a report he disputed.

A "Cook Islands News" parliamentary report by Brown claimed that George was not interested in autopsies when there is a suspicious or unexplained death. George complained he had been misquoted and called on the speaker to ban Brown from parliament because the newspaper had not apologised as requested. "Cook Islands News" said it first wanted to check the official transcript of parliamentary proceedings before deciding on this.

Puna banned Brown from parliament until 31 May, but said the "Cook Islands News" was free to send another reporter to cover proceedings. "Cook Islands News" found a recording of the debate, and after checking it, agreed that the first paragraph of Brown's report misquoted George, so they issued an apology. However, the newspaper stood by the rest of Brown's report on the controversy over autopsies not being carried out after allegedly suspicious deaths.

"Cook Islands News" quoted Speaker Puna as stating in a fax to the newspaper: "My earlier decision was based on what I regarded as inaccurate reporting of the proceedings of parliament which reflected unfairly on the deputy prime minister. Although I appreciate that not all will agree, I determined at the time, and still believe, the inaccuracy and the unfairness were such as to compel me to the action I took. Those concerns have been answered by the apology and I commend you for it. Of course I do agree that such actions by a speaker in a democratic country should not continue once their objective is achieved."

PINA is investigating threats to impose newspaper licensing in the Cook Islands, which were part of the "Cook Islands News" controversy.

On 18 April, the "Cook Islands News" reported that Deputy Prime Minister 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."

George 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. "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.

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