Kiribati Government says no to foreign journalists wanting to cover ferry disaster

Kiribati Government says no to foreign journalists wanting to cover ferry disaster

Kiribati Government says no to foreign journalists wanting to cover ferry disaster

Updated 7 February 2018, 19:20 AEDT

The Government of Kiribati says it does not want foreign journalists entering the country to report on a ferry disaster before the incident has been investigated.

Key points:

  • The ABC was set to travel to Kiribati but was told it's "not an appropriate time"
  • Opposition MPs wonder why the Government is being "so sensitive" in a "free country"
  • Thursday is declared a public holiday to honour the victims

About 90 people are missing and are presumed dead after the ferry, an 18-metre wooden catamaran, capsized after it left Nonouti island on January 18, headed for the capital Tarawa.

The ABC contacted the Government this week to outline its intention to travel to Tarawa to interview leaders, survivors, relatives, and officials about the impact the disaster is having on the small country and what is being done in response.

But a Government spokesman said via email that, "it would not be an appropriate time to carry out interviews" on the issue.

Asked for a more detailed explanation of why the ABC would not be allowed to cover the story if it travelled to Kiribati, the spokesman wrote, "the only reason is that the Commission of Inquiry will now begin its full investigation".

Over the phone, the spokesman said the ABC would not be allowed to interview anyone about the disaster if it entered the country.

'I don't know why the Government is so sensitive'

Kiribati's founding president and now Opposition MP for Nonouti, Sir Ieremia Tabai, said the decision to restrict foreign journalists is baffling.

"I don't know why the Government is so sensitive," he said.

"This is a free country and the media is part of our system."

Pacific Freedom Forum chair Monica Miller said she has never heard of a Pacific government restricting foreign journalists from covering a specific incident.

"I know that this is a tragedy that saddens all of us, but I think the situation will be made worse if we were to put a lid on overseas journalists coming in and I would seriously urge the authorities responsible for this rather sad situation to please reconsider," she said.

Ms Miller said the move to restrict foreign journalists could backfire on the Kiribati Government.

"It just creates suspicion as to what's really being hidden," she said.

"I'm not saying that's what's happening, but this is the sort of thought that would come to mind."

Thursday a public holiday to honour victims

The story has made headlines around the world and several regional news organisations have been following it closely.

Twenty-three of the ferry's 88 passengers were high school and primary school students heading to Tarawa for the start of term.

Seven survivors were found drifting in a dinghy eight days after the ferry went down and were rescued by a fishing boat.

The big question many locals have been asking is why it took more than a week for officials to notice the ferry was missing and to raise the alarm.

A journalist and cameraman from New Zealand's Newshub made it into the country earlier this week.

They broadcast an interview with the ferry's owner on Monday, but there have been no further reports.

Meanwhile, the Kiribati Government has declared Thursday will be a public holiday to honour the missing passengers and crew and their families.

A statement from the Office of President Taneti Maamau said all flags will be flown at half-mast and people are being urged to wear black.