The conviction of the former Aviation Minister has been hailed by the media in the Solomons as a significant victory for media freedom. It's the second case in a month where the courts have taken stern action against people in authority who intimidated journalists.
[HONIMAE:] It's pretty good news and now I think jounalists in Solomon Islands, I for one, are more confident now that law and order has returned and these things, intimidation and all this trying to muzzle the media would stop and jounalists will be left to continue with the work they're supposed to do, just inform and educate people.
[DORNEY:] Johnson Honimae, the General Manager of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation. He was commenting on the jailing of the Solomon Islands Aviation Minister, Daniel Fa'afunua. Fa'afunua was arrested by members of the Regional Assistance Mission, RAMSI, in November following an alleged drunk and disorderly incident. He'll be back in court later this month on that matter but the crime that led to his jailing - demanding money with menace - dates back to early 2002 and what he did when the Solomon Star newspaper reported that, following a car accident, Fa'afunua had assaulted a taxi driver in the Honiara town market. The publisher of the Solomon Star, John Lamani:
[LAMANI:] We wrote a story on this one. And there were eyewitnesses who told us that a Minister of the Crown should behave himself and shouldn't do this - bashing up people. We wrote that story and three days later we had this group of people coming up into Solomon Star office demanding $5,000. And that demand was ordered by the Minister himself. And we argued about the money. You know, you couldn't come clear out with people who have already drunk so much alcohol. So I drove back to the office, went and cashed a cheque at the National Bank of Solomon Islands and drove back again and gave him the money.
[DORNEY:] There was a fair bit of intimidation involved?
[LAMANI:] The boys he sent threatened the staff of Solomon Star, threatening to burn the office, threatened to damage property, vehicles if we didn't give the money.
[DORNEY:] Demanding cash from those who might have hurt your pride became something of an industry in Honiara in the years leading up to the intervention. Most of those demanding cash were from Malaita where there is a tradition of settling disputes arising from insulting behaviour through some form of traditional compensation. But in handing down Fa'afunua's three year jail term, the Acting Chief Magistrate, David Chetwynd, said using threats of serious harm to back an extortion demand was a perversion of custom.
[CHETWYND VOICED:] A request of shell money, a reconciliation ceremony and a feast can be seen as custom. But a demand for huge sums of money as a way to personal gain, backed by threats made by armed thugs is not a part of custom.
[DORNEY:] Last month, in another case involving intimidation of the media, the Chief Magistrate jailed a former Police Suprintendent, James Kili, for five years. Kili was a leading officer in the paramilitary police, the Field Force, that joined up with the Malaita Eagle Force ethnic militia to conduct the June 2000 coup. He and other policemen refused to surrender their weapons and got upset when the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation ran a news item about how this was creating problems during a gun amnesty. Johnson Honimae, the boss of the SIBC:
[HONIMAE:] Former Suprintendent James Kili, was not very happy with the news item that we had run, SIBC had run. So basically he came in with some of his fellows and walked thorough the front glass door, kicked it down and then went for the security officer, chased him around the station, damaged some equipment inside the on-air studio and turned around on another journalists who was trying to calm things down. It was basically over a story we were running that day over a parade that police were supposed to hold organised by the senior officers for the officers to surrender arms. Some officers including Kili didn't agree with that and they didn't think that it was a good idea to broadcast the fact that this ceremony was delayed because of disagreements among police officers. The same news item was also run by one of the commercial stations, Pawa FM, and James Kili also actually went to their station and, you know, tried to intimidate those people. And that was also one of the charges, yes. So that's what he got the five years for in prison.
[DORNEY:] Both Mr Honimae and Mr Lamani are delighted with the impact the judgements have had.
[LAMANI:] The fact that we managed to win this case in the court shows to the people that there is now a bright side to things for the people to know things. So they are encouraged. So that they can write their views, express their thinking both in the paper and in the radio.
[HONIMAE:] A good example is people who are able to go into the newsroom, maybe the radio station and basically are prepared to put their name to the story. Before that, at the height of the tension, nobody was willing to even talk.