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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Lurching toward authoritarianism

Nauru suppresses free speech and dissent to keep political stability

Nauru has banned the Australian Broadcasting Corp. from covering the Pacific Islands Forum scheduled in September — the latest in a series of policies that suppress free speech in this tiny Pacific island nation run by a government that has zero-tolerance for dissent.

The Nauruan government declared that no representative from ABC will be granted a visa to enter Nauru “under any circumstances,” citing the organization’s “blatant interference in Nauru’s domestic politics prior to the 2016 election, harassment of and lack of respect towards our President in Australia, false and defamatory allegations against members of our government, and continued biased and false reporting about our country.”

“Nauru’s recent political stability has come at the cost of increasing authoritarianism,” says Stewart Firth, author of Lowy Institute’s report titled “Instability in the Pacific Islands,” released in June.

Nauru’s recent actions have been consistently geared toward its burgeoning authoritarian tendency. In June, the Nauruan government enacted sweeping contempt-of-court laws that make it a crime to criticize judicial officers or any party to a case and to report court decisions. Earlier this year, the government introduced laws that criminalize disrespect of the national flag, anthem or emblem. A person could face up to five years in jail for not stopping the car when driving through a public area where the national anthem is playing.

Nauru had a chaotic political path that saw repeated shifts in leadership since 2003. The republic witnessed a cycle of its successive presidents being ousted, reelected and again ousted, until Baron Waqa assumed office in June 2013 and became Nauru’s 14th president. Nauru does not have a formal structure for political parties, Candidates typically run as independents and the formation of alliances within the government are based on extended family ties. Nevertheless, the fragile political situation never resulted in civil unrests and the transition was always carried out peacefully.

“After years of frequent changes of government and states of emergency, Nauru’s politics is characterized by an authoritarian approach to parliamentary oppositions, public demonstrations and freedom of speech but could not be described as unstable or likely to become so,” Lowly Institute states in a report released June 23.

The Administration of Justice Act, which came into force in May, is so far the most expansive law that will compel Nauruans to seal their lips. Outlawed actions under this law include: criticisms of any witnesses, judicial officers or legal representatives in a pending court matter; publishing a judgment of the court; scandalizing a judge or judicial officer; undermining the authority of the courts or justice system “in any manner whatsoever.”

The law applies to online comments that are viewable in Nauru, regardless of where it was published. Violations are punishable with two years in jail and $20,000(US$15,309) fines for individuals, and up to $50,000(US$38,283) in fines for corporations. Anyone accused of the crime would be refused a presumption of bail, alongside those accused of murder or treason, under separate laws that came into force on the same day.

Firth said “Australia should do more to indicate its disapproval of Nauru’s recent curbs on the judiciary, the media, and the opposition.”

With a population of 11,000, Nauru has a small police force under civilian control. This nation does not have its own armed forces. Australia is responsible for Nauru's defense under an informal agreement between the two countries. The September 2005 Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Nauru provides the latter with financial aid and technical assistance, in exchange for Nauru's housing of asylum seekers while their applications for entry into Australia are processed.

“As host of the Australian detention center, the Nauru government has entrenched executive power in the knowledge that criticism from Canberra will be low-key at most. Its three targets have been the judiciary, opposition MPs, and freedom of speech,” Firth wrote. “Nauru’s example may serve to demonstrate to the region that the commitments of the Biketawa Declaration to democracy and the rule of law do not have to be taken too seriously, and that an authoritarian approach to parliamentary opposition pays dividends.”

As for Nauru’s decision to ban ABC from covering the PIF in September, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the action as “regrettable” but said Australia must respect the Nauruan government’s right to refuse a visa to anyone.


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