SECURITY CONDITIONS FOR LOCAL JOURNALISTS COVERING ARMED ETHNIC CONFLICT in the Solomon Islands deteriorated markedly last year, as several reporters went into hiding after militants threatened them with physical violence.
A coup attempted on June 5 by the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), a rebel group representing emigrants from neighboring Malaita Island to the archipelago’s main island, Guadalcanal, eventually forced prime minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu to leave office. A new government, led by former opposition leader Manasseh Sogavare, was installed at the end of June. However, the MEF maintained de facto control of the capital, Honiara. Since Honiara is the country’s media center, most non-Malaitan journalists fled.
Fighting broke out on Guadalcanal in October 1998, when a group now known as the Isatabu Freedom Movement began a violent campaign to secure indigenous land rights and drive out settlers from Malaita. The MEF was formed as a counter-force.
Despite a peace accord signed by the two sides on October 15, the situation remained extremely volatile. The new government did not impose formal restrictions on journalists, but repeatedly emphasized the need for the media to be “sensitive” about reporting on ethnic tensions.
Sam Seke, free-lancer
Seke, a free-lance journalist who reported for Radio Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), received multiple warnings that he was in danger of being killed by members of the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), a rebel group. The threats followed an ABC program about the MEF.
A friend of the militia’s deputy commander stopped Seke in the morning, warning him to leave town because “the MEF are after you.” Later that day, a colleague at the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, where Seke used to be news editor, called him to the office to show him a copy of the MEF’s May 15 newsletter. An article in the newsletter indicated that Seke was on the group’s hit list. A police officer also telephoned Seke and urged him to flee the capital immediately.
On May 17, Seke left Honiara for the relative safety of Gizo, the capital of Western Province. Shortly after he left for the airport, MEF members arrived at his home.
MEF spokesman and legal adviser Andrew Nori wrote a letter to militia commanders urging them to allow Seke to work without fear of physical reprisal, but CPJ sources said his influence was limited. On June 5, the MEF led a coup attempt in Honiara, and the city rapidly descended into lawlessness. By September, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported that more than half of Honiara’s 50,000 residents had fled the capital.