4 Jul 2011

Vanuatu Minister unlikely to lose position for role in assault on publisher

4:08 pm on 4 July 2011

There's disappointment in Vanuatu at the light sentence given to a government minister for his role in the assault of the publisher of the Daily Post newspaper, Marc Neil-Jones, in March.

The Minister of Public Utilities and Infrastructure, Harry Iauko, was fined 15,000 Vatu, or US$150, after pleading guilty for aiding and abetting damage to property and for aiding and abetting the assault at the Daily Post office in Port Vila.

The Magistrates Court sentenced Mr Iauko's eight supporters involved in the assault of Marc Neil-Jones with fines ranging up to nearly 1,000 US dollars.

Johnny Blades reports:

Assuming the case would be heard in the Supreme Court, Marc Neil-Jones had earlier voiced concern about a conflict of interest in the Public Prosecutor hearing the case.

Subsequently, the Prosecutor, Kaylene Tavoa, announced she was considering defamation action against the publisher who was baffled at the late move by state prosecutors to have the case heard by a junior Magistrate.

"Normally a case like this involving a senior public figure on an assault involving media would be transferred to the Supreme Court. This is what most lawyers say, it's what the state prosecution officers were saying... and then suddenly there was a complete about turn."

Mr Neil-Jones says a dangerous precedent has been set with this sentencing.

A minister can send his goons into a media office, assault anyone they want and overturn the office and a precedent has been set that he will only receive a 1500 Vatu fine.

The secretary-general of Vanuatu's NGO network, VANGO, says the assault on the Publisher was an affront on media freedom and the channels which civil society relies on to help provide a balanced view of key issues.

Viviane Obed says government needs to be protecting the rights of media, and that Mr Iauko's sentence is unfair.

For example I would say if it was a young person who did this, he would get more (of a sentence) than what was given to him (Iauko). So I think it's not fair, especially in a highly responsible position, he should be terminated from his position, he should be suspended and have the opportunity taken out from him because he's not behaving the way he should.

Without receiving a jail sentence, Harry Iauko's position as an MP appears to be safe.

And the deputy Prime Minister Ham Lini says the conviction is unlikely to affect Mr Iauko's position as Minister, describing the charge as not very serious.

It's because of the media that this has been made a big issue. It's still better than killing someone... So we'll see what happens. Maybe there'll be something happening but it will depend very much on the Prime Minister and how the coalition's going to be consolidated.

Charges of unlawful assembly, unlawful entry and criminal trespass against Harry Iauko were withdrawn by the State Prosecutor after he pleaded not guilty.

Some observers say this raises further questions around the trial.