Nauru’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law has recently come under question. The Nauru government, under president Baron Waqa and justice minister David Adeang, moved quickly after its election in 2013 to dismiss the Resident Magistrate and prevent the Chief Justice from returning to Nauru, while effectively barring journalists by increasing their visa fee from $200 to $8,000. The sequel was the indefinite suspension from parliament of three MPs for ‘talking too much to foreign media’, and of two more for ‘behaving in an unruly manner’. Opposition MP Roland Kun has since had his passport cancelled, ensuring that he remains separated from his family in New Zealand. Continuing criticism prompted the Nauru government to suppress freedom of expression in May 2015 by directing the country’s monopoly internet provider Digicel to block Facebook and apps such as Skype. Under the amended criminal code of 2015, any statement deemed likely to threaten public order has become punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, including those likely to arouse ‘political hatred’. Earlier this year the Nauru government cancelled all visitor visas for Australians and New Zealanders, then introduced new rules requiring them to find a Nauruan sponsor who can be fined or gaoled if visa restrictions are breached.
A coincidence of purpose and interests between Nauru and Australia has encouraged these developments. Nauru played a key part in enabling former prime minister Tony Abbott to keep his promise to stop the boats, and in both countries the official mood shifted in 2013 towards suspicion of the media and intolerance of criticism. Just as Nauru restricted freedom of expression, so the Australian government –with the support of the Labor opposition – passed the Border Force Act 2015 making it a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years’ gaol, for anyone working with the immigration department at the detention centres on Manus and Nauru to disclose information to the media about what was happening there.
In September 2015, the New Zealand government suspended aid worth US$760,000 annually, sensitive to criticism that the funds – destined for Nauru’s Department of Justice and Border Control – were in fact supporting an unjust system. Australia’s response has been more muted.
Speaker: Stewart Firth