The island nation of Nauru has startled journalists by suddenly hiking the cost of a single-entry media visa from $200 to $8000. This has raised immediate concerns about press freedom. It looks like a blatant attempt to try to keep reporters away from the detention centre for asylum seekers that is based there. A media blackout could soon result if no news is able to be filtered back from Nauru, where conditions for refugees, such as the youngsters in the picture above, have already been said to be “cruel and harsh.”
Nauru is the second smallest country in the entire world and has now set the record for the most expensive visa of all time.
It also seems to be in line with an overall shut-down on public information about the asylum seeker “problem,” and is almost certain to affect the amount of media attention that Nauru gets; which is not far off from total censorship. Even at the lower rate of $200, only 4 media visas were issued in 2013. There was a spike in applications after the United Nations submitted a damning report on conditions in November, but this did not lead to an increase in those that were processed. The UN had found that lack of privacy, and lack of services for those who had suffered torture or trauma, were major problems. The report was highly critical in many areas.
The Nauru Opposition are incensed by the visa price escalation, and see it as a behaviour set to bully the media and avoid any accountability. Matthew Batsiua, of the opposition party, said it was an alarming trend. The Nauru government won’t balk, he claimed, in “trying to censor media,” whilst his own party looked towards transparency.
A regular visitor to Nauru for a holiday can obtain a visa on arrival for $100. Journalists who now apply for the extortionate $8000 media fee will not have their fees refunded if their application is refused. Don’t be expecting too many of those “tropical paradise” island stories coming at you in the glossy magazines this year either. With this world-record for the most expensive visa ever, journalists of all persuasions are going to be hard-pushed to persuade their editors it’s a must-go destination.
Nauru is not exactly a paradise, anyway. It was once called Pleasant Island but it doesn’t fit that name anymore. Years of phosphate mining have scored its landscape to a naked and treeless 21 square kilometers of scrub, and there is no longer any money to be made from the mines. Becoming the detention centre for 1000 asylum seekers is now their main “trade” and source of aid and expenses. It performed this role from 2001 until 2008 when it was closed, but then re-opened again in 2012. It is ringed by a coral reef and sandy beaches, and the diving and fishing are said to be excellent, but this dot on the map 25 miles south of the equator is now known for its captives not its charms.
In July of last year, most of the inmates started a riot and they burnt down at least 80% of the buildings. 125 of them ended up with police charges. Their unhappiness at their conditions and the slow processing of their claims were said to be the triggers. At least the world got to hear about it.
Some see it all as a money-spinning scheme, and based on pure greed, not a cleverly designed threat to press freedom. This is the line being taken by the Nauru government who say they just want to raise revenue. Upping the price of a visa by 40-fold (4000%) is a pretty dramatic way to achieve a boost in income. Given that they weren’t handing them out willy-nilly anyway, this seems a suspicious argument. In addition, someone might have told them that the media industry is not exactly flush with cash right now either. Suggestions that the price hike was encouraged, or even proposed, by the Australians, have also been dismissed by official spokesmen.
There has been no clarification from Nauru as to why such a massive inflationary price has been brought in. Bhutan, previously the holder of the title of the most expensive place to get a visa for, charges a minimum $250 per day per person for all visitors, but this is to pay for essentials like health, education and infrastructure.
Journalists unions have condemned the price of the visa and say it is a clear intent to obstruct them from travelling to Nauru to report from there. As the stories of the refugees on the island are of public interest, this lends credibility to the claim that this is a threat to press freedom. Refugee groups are also very unhappy. Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition, said it was a “deliberate tactic” and an “obstacle to prevent coverage.”
Accountability is the word that keeps appearing, as in a lack of it. With little or no media access to the island, that is a situation that is in danger of getting worse.
Press freedom, a vital component of any democracy, appears to be under grave threat on the tiny island of Nauru.
By Kate Henderson