Thursday, 24 May 2012 9:01 AM

Late Cooks PM a Free Press Leader: PFF

PFF Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS-- Members of the Pacific Freedom Forum join the tributes this month to a former prime minister of the Cook Islands. Sir Geoffrey, who privatised state media and initiated regular press briefings during his leadership, died on May 8 after a short illness. He was 71.

Widely respected as a gifted orator whatever the setting, Sir Geoffrey Arama Henry started his first term in 1989 by introducing freedoms of the press. Under his administration government relinquished control of its daily newspaper, Cook Islands News, established 1945. The paper was sold to a former editor who remains part of the newspaper to this day.
"Privatising print media and establishing television under an independent board were landmark decisions," says PFF chair Titi Gabi. "Cook Islands journalists recall and share moments of high drama and refusal to deal with the rigours of being held under public scrutiny by Sir Geoffrey the individual. But on the whole, his leadership in bringing about the very conditions which allowed investigative journalism to put his decisions under the spotlight should be recognised."
The launch of national television on December 25 1990 was tipped as the government's Christmas gift to the people. A new state broadcasting corporation featured private sector leadership for the first time in dealing with media industry development.
Former TV journalists Jason Brown and Lisa Williams-Lahari confirm the board was not just independent by law, but also independent by deed. Big stories were broken, and major issues exposed. Both have since gone on to become founding members of the Pacific Freedom Forum.
"His decisions back then to modernise-- and then privatise, national news media laid the foundations for a radical increase in the amount of public debate and participation," recalls Brown.
He says the transitions from direct state control to independent operations saw huge changes in governance.
"People at the time feared for their government jobs, contracts or scholarships if they spoke out. At first, most Cook Islanders were too afraid to comment on camera," says Brown, who is now based in New Zealand.
Contrasting with an often autocratic atmosphere in the early decades of self-government, Henry started weekly press conferences to explain cabinet decisions and answer questions -- even up until the mid-90's, when a debt crisis during his second term saw Henry under pressure and less keen to answer questions from the press. During that economic "transition", 2,000 public servants were sacked from a workforce of 3,600.
"No democracy is without controversy, but the original decision by Henry to free up media remains bold and decisive," says PFF's co chair Monica Miller.
"Rare for the region at the time, Sir Geoffrey was a leader who worked to regain favour for the notion of a Fourth Estate, distinct and independent from the three other estates - government, parliament and the judiciary."
Henry was Prime Minister for most of the 1990s and had retired from political life by 2006 when the introduction of an Official Information Act saw a later administration build on the greater accountability he had encouraged during his term. He also led a process he termed 'devolution' which moved decision making and public debate away from an overpoweringly central government, and back towards other societal sectors, like traditional leaders, churches, an independent media, business, and the many other public spaces.
"Today, thanks to the conditions -- and the challenges -- Sir Geoffrey helped create for journalists, reporters in the Cook Islands and Cook Islands reporters outside of the homeland provide an often feisty exchange of public view, and debate a healthy range of ethical issues including those on the Pacific Freedom Forum and Pacific Media online networks," recalls Williams-Lahari.
Such contributions by Sir Geoffrey are remembered at PFF with gratitude by those defending press freedoms, she says.