Pacific leaders who open Forum meetings to media must reject attempts by China to reverse that practice, says regional media watchdog the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF).

“Pacific journalists are a normal feature of Pacific leaders events, and must remain so,” says PFF Chair, Monica Miller.

“We urge the Nauru President as Forum Chair to ensure the media ban and arrest at the Forum leaders meeting in Nauru ends in Nauru.”

China funded Pacific Forum Leaders for the first time to an APEC event for a leaders session ahead of the APEC talks, termed a working dinner.

Despite accreditation and registration for the event, all journalists including those from the host country were told to leave the venue.

Only Chinese media were allowed to report the working dinner.

“If China comes to the Pacific, it’s the Pacific not China who should set the rules of engagement – and that engagement must be reported or at least covered as per Forum media protocols,” says Miller, speaking from American Samoa.

PFF co-Chair Bernadette Carreon says the eight Pacific leaders who attended the meeting must explain why they did not speak up to defend the right of journalists to inform home audiences.

“China is acting exactly like colonial masters from decades ago,” says Carreon, based in Palau.

Observing from Solomon Islands, PFF co-Chair Robert Iroga joined criticism of the China-only media rule.

“Frankly, this is appalling in terms of disrespecting the work led by PNG in listing the event on the media schedule, in the belief it to be reported by all media.

“It’s also a disturbing sign of things to come if our leaders remain silent in the face of China bullying.”

The media ban by Chinese officials sparked dozens of news stories worldwide, prompting hundreds of critical comments on social media.

Chinese officials barred access to all media, apart from a small list of outlets, citing space and security concerns.

Many of those left out grumbled about what they saw as a lack of transparency around China’s efforts to gain new allies.

“It just sends such a terrible signal,” said Jonathan Pryke of Sydney-based think-tank the Lowy Institute.

“It just seems like they are trying to buy influence but not build influence,” he said, referring to Chinese aid to the region.

Dozens of accredited journalists were turned away despite being invited to attend by PNG officials, who also arranged transport to the well-guarded forum venue.

Chinese officials said they had not been informed of the host’s plans and had to limit media numbers.

One official suggested journalists could look out for reports on the forum published by China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.

Lina Keapu, photojournalist at PNG’s Sunday Chronicle newspaper said it was a “slap in the face”.

“As the local media, we should be there covering it and getting the news to our national public,” she said.

Pita Ligaiula, a journalist with the Pacific Island News Association (PINA), based in Fiji, said Chinese influence was among the big issues affecting the region and it was important to be able to inform the public about its intentions.

“I come all the way from Fiji only to be told we are not invited to cover this,” he said.

Pryke said China had scored an “own goal” by “marginalising domestic media in their own country” when they could have anticipated plenty of positive coverage from the event. (PACNEWS)