Veteran Australian reporter Sean Dorney, the ABC’s Pacific Correspondent, was expelled from Fiji this week following another virtual coup d’état by the military. It was far from the first time Dorney had been the news item as well as the reporter. Bali-based journalist Richard Laidlaw, who has known Dorney for many years, looks at another side of the man and his works
UNGASAN, Bali ~ Years ago, when ABC reporter Sean Dorney and his wife Pauline – a wonderful lady from Manus Island – became regular visitors to our house in Port Moresby, we lived in fear of Sean’s favorite party trick.
He would leap over the balcony railing, grab it backwards, and swing to the ground a couple of meters below. He would do this at every opportunity. He was persuaded not to do so at our wedding – held in our house in Port Moresby overlooking the Coral Sea – only by the promise of opportunities for fun and frivolity at the reception later, at a hotel in town.
Dorney is a character; of that there can be no doubt. He is also the consummate reporter, capable of deep analysis of a story, well briefed on the background to it and proficient in separating rumor from fact. In short, he is the master of considered action.
That is, except at the balcony rail. But Dorney was always a must-ask guest for other attributes, too: a store of yarns, all told with a twinkling Irish-Australian smile and a quick wit; a generous friend, one always ready to lend a hand if someone needed help with a story; a great husband and father.
Above all, Dorney is straight as a die. To him, objectivity is everything. This is a function of the media’s presentation of stories that often upsets those in power, who sometimes prefer to keep the truth hidden.
A “meddlesome” journalist, these days, is as embarrassing to autocrats as Thomas A’Beckett was to the Medieval English king whose murderous asides on the subject created a martyr through the misguided actions of three knights seeking to find favor in their king’s eye.
Dorney is a modest bloke. He would reject the assertion that he is a media star. He prefers to work quietly and honestly, and with great skill, and to present the facts – and analysis of the facts – without fear or favor.
So he is no stranger to problems with politicians. In the past he has run afoul of them in Papua New Guinea and at various times and in various places across the sweep of the south-west Pacific. It is no surprise that the latest usurpers of power in Fiji – a benighted place, for sure – thought they might get along better without questions from the floor from Dorney.
Hence his call into the information minister’s office in Suva this week and his being told by the minister, “Look, Sean, we’re not happy with your reporting. There are going to be immigration officers coming and you’ll be on your way to the airport.”
In being shown the door by the tin-pot dictatorship in Fiji, Dorney joins a lengthening list of expatriate journalists who have fallen foul of the regime. In January the publisher of the Fiji Times was “required to leave.” Rex Gardner followed his predecessor, Evan Hannah, out of the door. Hannah had been expelled in May last year.
Another Australian publisher, Scottish-born Russell Hunter of the Fiji Sun newspaper – coincidentally Hunter is another connection from PNG days – was also deported last year following publication of a series of articles that failed to meet the regime’s specifications.
Under new regulations introduced after Fijian strongman Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s coup d’état last week (the country’s president abrogated the Constitution – on Good Friday; great day for it! – Bainimarama “resigned” as prime minister and was then reappointed), the media in Fiji is now subject to direct censorship.
Under the new post-coup Public Emergency Regulations 2009, the head of the information department has total power to control broadcasts and publications. The Fiji Times ran an editorial on these changes. It wrote that the Constitution had been “purportedly abrogated” and the editorial appeared in the edition of the newspaper that introduced readers to large blank spaces where censors had objected to content.
Dorney isn’t the first media person to be shown the door by the Fijians. Almost certainly he won’t be the last.
But beyond doubt, he’s the one with the best party trick.