Oz Reporters Request Official Flights after Garuda Crash

SYDNEY ~ Australia’s major newspaper groups have warned Canberra they will not cover overseas ministerial trips following this month’s Yogyakarta plane crash unless reporters can fly on official aircraft.

A number of journalists covering Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s visit to Indonesia were aboard Garuda Airlines Boeing 737 when it overshot the runway and burst into flames at Yogyakarta airport on March 7, killing 21 people.

The Australian Financial Review’s Jakarta-based correspondent Morgan Mellish was among five Australians killed and Sydney Morning Herald reporter Cynthia Banham barely survived and has had a leg amputated.

They were forced to board commercial flights because there was no room for them aboard Downer’s official aircraft, part of a government VIP fleet which was downgraded with smaller aircraft in 2002.

Fairfax Media, which employed Mellish and Banham, joined Australia’s largest newspaper publisher News Limited in sending a letter to Prime Minister John Howard this week calling for an upgraded VIP fleet with room for reporters.

“Australian journalists, and the editors to whom they report, take unacceptable risks when correspondents are forced to fly commercial aircraft to cover official trips overseas because there is insufficient space on government aircraft to accommodate them,” the letter said.

“While this is of special concern in countries with inadequate air safety, there are other issues. Even in the most developed countries, reliance on commercial aircraft to follow official aircraft on tight travel schedules can make it difficult, at times impossible, to cover official events.”

The newspaper groups urged the government to approve the purchase of new aircraft in the May federal budget.

“Unfortunately, in the interim, our editors and bureau chiefs cannot send correspondents on commercial aircraft to cover official government business if insufficient seats are available on the official aircraft.”

The ban could have a significant impact on coverage of government activities in the lead-up to national elections due to be held by the end of the year.

In countries such as the United States and Britain, journalists traveling with the president or prime minister are routinely accommodated on official aircraft.

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