WELLINGTON - The tiny Pacific island of Nauru — home to a Canberra-funded refugee detention camp dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo” — is limiting media access to the region’s largest diplomatic summit, sparking claims it is trying to muzzle the press.
Reporters are usually warmly welcomed at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), an annual gathering that allows leaders from 18 nations to air concerns about a region often overlooked on the global stage.
There are no shortage of pressing stories to cover at the meeting, from the existential threat climate change poses for small island states to China’s growing influence.
But Nauru’s government, which Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank says “has recently lurched towards authoritarianism,” harbors a deep mistrust of the media and is limiting reporting opportunities at this year’s summit, which it will host.
Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC, has been banned outright, accused by Nauru authorities of “harassment and lack of respect” in its coverage of the island.
“It (Nauru) can hardly claim it is ‘welcoming the media’ if it dictates who that media will be and bans Australia’s public broadcaster,” said ABC News director Gaven Morris.
AFP has also been denied accreditation.
Few foreign journalists have had access to Nauru over the past few years, with many hampered by the nation’s decision to charge 8,000 Australian dollars ($5,800) per visa application, nonrefundable even if not granted.
Under pressure to be more open after being named host of the 2018 PIF summit, Nauru has temporarily waived the fee for press seeking to attend the meeting, due to be held from Sept. 1-9.
But it has severely limited how many journalists can cover the summit, restricting the total number to just 30, including photographers and camera operators as well as reporters.
Nauru argues its small size means it can only accommodate a few journalists, and denies the measure amounts to “restriction of press freedom.”
“We are a small nation and have limited accommodation and facilities for the PIF, hence the well-publicized limitations,” the government said in reaction to ABC being barred.
“Media from across the world have respected this and have gone through the proper application process, however the ABC seems to believe it deserves special exemption from this process.”
But critics say Nauru’s explanation is also an attempt to minimize negative attention.
“While infrastructure constraints play a role in limited pooling numbers, we are appalled by this attempt to control media coverage,” the New Zealand Parliamentary Press Gallery said.
Nauru’s aversion to media scrutiny stems from the asylum-seeker processing center it hosts on Australia’s behalf, activists claim. With the island only 21 square kilometers (8 square miles) in size, it is close to the summit venue.
Under Canberra’s hard-line immigration policy, asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are kept in offshore compounds — single men go to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island; families, children and women to Nauru.
The Nauru camp, which currently holds more than 240 men, women and children, is an economic lifeline for the isolated nation of 11,000, which has exhausted its previous source of wealth: phosphate deposits used as fertilizer.
Nauru’s government revenues ballooned from AU$20 million in 2010-11 to AU$115 million in 2015-16 largely due to fees paid by Canberra linked to the compound, official Australia data shows.
In return, Canberra avoids having asylum-seekers step on Australian soil, instead processing them 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) offshore, away from prying eyes.
However, that has not prevented rights groups and the United Nations from slamming conditions at a facility media has dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo.”
The U.N. has consistently raised concerns that indefinite detention of people who have committed no crime is unlawful.
In a 2016 report, the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child cited “inhuman and degrading treatment” of minors in the camp, “including physical, psychological and sexual abuse.”
It also noted that the government’s media restrictions were preventing journalists from properly researching children’s treatment.
Canberra argues its offshore detention centers save lives by discouraging people-smugglers from trying to ferry would-be refugees to Australia in dangerous vessels.