The media director of the largest newspaper in Vanuatu has been denied re-entry to the Pacific island nation, a move he claims is retaliation for reporting on the deportation of a number of criminal suspects with dual Chinese-Vanuatu nationality in July.
Dan McGarry, who runs the Vanuatu Daily Post, was prevented from boarding a flight from Brisbane to Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila on Saturday, less than a fortnight after the Vanuatu government declined to renew his work permit. Authorities insisted this was done in line with government policy to encourage the hiring of locals.
McGarry is a Canadian passport holder and is allowed 30 days visa-free entry to Vanuatu. His partner, a Vanuatu citizen, returned on her own to the country to care for their children.
“This is my home that we’re talking about,” said McGarry, who has worked as a journalist in Vanuatu for more than a decade.
“I’ve lived there for 16 years. I am not a parachute journalist. I think it’s callous and cruel, and it has left my family feeling heartbroken.”
Vanuatu, located about 1,700km (1,050 miles) east of Australia, is among the Pacific island nations that have been the recipients of substantial Chinese aid, loans and investment in the past decade, thrusting it to the forefront of a competition for influence in the region between China on one side and the United States and its allies, particularly Australia, on the other.
According to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute think tank, Beijing has committed at least US$6.9 billion in development aid to the Pacific region since 2011. Vanuatu owes around half of its external debt, or US$130 million, to Beijing, according to government statistics.
The influx of Chinese money has raised concerns in Washington and Canberra that the archipelago, whose GDP per capita is similar to that of the Philippines, could be enticed into Beijing’s orbit of influence or coerced through debt trap diplomacy if it is unable to service its loans.
In July, the Vanuatu Daily Post revealed the deportation of six Chinese-Vanuatu dual nationals without due process or apparent access to legal representation after they were accused of operating a cryptocurrency scam, sparking an outcry from rights experts and legal figures across the region.
Within days of the deportations, McGarry said that Prime Minister Charlot Salwai summoned him to his office to berate him about the coverage, telling him: “If you don’t like it here, you can go home.”
Although McGarry does not believe China intervened directly in his case, he sees his blacklisting as another example of the Vanuatu government’s growing deference towards Beijing.
“I don’t think it was necessary,” he said. “I think the prime minister and several ministers of state looked around themselves, they saw what’s happening in Hong Kong, they see what’s happening in the west of China. They see what China does with its journalists and how it keeps them in a very small box, and they are taking a page from the same book.”
Ishmael Kalsakau, the leader of the opposition in Vanuatu’s 52-member parliament, said “everything points towards” McGarry being expelled for his coverage of Chinese influence and pledged to demand an explanation from the government when parliament resumes next week.
“The level of intervention in Vanuatu has surpassed any previous presence that the Chinese have had in Vanuatu and it’s gotten to the stage where in my view the government of Vanuatu has been prepared to turn a blind eye to the law that upholds this nation,” Kalsakau, who serves as vice-president of the Union of Moderate Parties.
Chinese nationals have also been buying citizenship in Vanuatu through the Development Support Programme, a scheme that has controversially become the single largest source of revenue for the Vanuatu government in recent years, becoming the subject of critical reports in the Daily Post.
McGarry insists, however, that his newspaper has not been biased against the Vanuatu government or China. For example, he said, the Daily Post has poured heavy scepticism on Australian media reports, denied by both the Chinese and Vanuatu governments, that discussions were underway to host a Chinese naval base in the country.
“In that case, effectively, we were defending the government, although that wasn’t my intent,” he said.
“We’ve always published without fear or favour. We’re politically neutral, we are not partisan in anyway.”
The Media Association of Vanuatu, Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, and the International Federation of Journalists have all expressed concern over the government’s handling of McGarry’s immigration status.
Government spokesman Hilaire Bule and Minister for Foreign Affairs Ralph Regenvanu did not respond to requests for comment. Additional reporting by Meaghan Tobin
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This article Vanuatu bars Daily Post newspaper chief critical of Chinese influence first appeared on South China Morning Post