The Government of Vanuatu has blocked Dan McGarry from working. Now it appears intent on separating him from his family and home. In what appears to be a further attack on media freedom, the journalist was denied the right to return to Vanuatu to be with his family.
McGarry has drawn the ire of the political leadership for a series of Vanuatu Daily Post reports raising concerns about rising Chinese influence in the tiny Pacific island country. The Prime Minister and others have complained vociferously to McGarry and the Media Association of Vanuatu. Now, they appear to be abusing administrative measures to silence him and caution others.
“I have every right to be in Vanuatu with my family,” McGarry said. “I’ve done nothing wrong. Everyone knows that.”
McGarry was Media Director for the Daily Post, the nation’s only daily newspaper, until just over a week ago, when Labour Commissioner Muriel Meltenoven wrote to his employer rejecting his annual work permit renewal, and canceling his residence visa.
A Canadian, he is in the process of applying for dual Vanuatu citizenship.
Even though the company has appealed the work permit cancellation, McGarry left Vanuatu in accordance with regulations. He spent a week in Brisbane with his de facto spouse of five years. Having been advised by his lawyer that there was no legal reason he should be barred from returning to Vanuatu as a visitor, he made plans to do so last Saturday.
But when the couple attempted to check in to a Virgin Australia flight to Port Vila, McGarry was referred to the ticket desk. Virgin Australia staff confirmed to McGarry that Vanuatu Immigration had issued a notice barring the airline from uplifting him.
“The airline folks told me I was required to contact Immigration directly. They were extremely courteous and helpful throughout, and helped me ring each three different Vanuatu Immigration numbers multiple times,” he said. Every call went unanswered.
“The staff at Virgin Australia assured me everything was in order, and that the Immigration note was the only reason they couldn’t allow me to join my partner on the plane,” he said.
Repeated attempts to obtain a copy of Vanuatu Immigration’s letter to the airlines were unsuccessful.
McGarry asked, “How can I comply with Immigration’s demands if they won’t tell me what I need to do? I feel like a character in Catch 22.”
“This gives the lie to the government’s insistence that cancelling my work permit was purely an administrative issue. I know of no legal reason why they should issue a blanket travel ban like this.”
“They’re doing what every guilty-minded government does when faced with inconvenient facts: they’d rather shut me up—and shut me out—than engage honestly with the public about the stories we report.”
Now McGarry and his family are separated by 1300 kilometres of ocean, and don’t know when they’ll be reunited.
“Even thinking about it brings me to tears,” said McGarry. “I had to Skype my partner and our two kids after she got back alone, and the moment we saw each other, we all just started bawling. They keep asking when I’m coming home and I don’t know what to tell them.”
“It’s just plain cruel to make innocent children suffer merely because we printed an uncomfortable truth,” he said. “I don’t understand how anyone could act like that.”
Lawyers acting for McGarry and for the Daily Post are prepared to defend his right to rejoin his family.