Kiribati announces Commission of Inquiry into ferry tragedy
TARAWA, Kiribati-February 8,2018: 3.15pm (RNZ PACIFIC/ABC): The Kiribati government is to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance of the MV Butiraoi and has pledged stern action against those responsible.
The nation is in three days of mourning for those thought to have perished at sea after the ferry left on a journey from the island of Nonouti to the capital Tarawa three weeks ago.
The Kiribati government said the inquiry would carry out “fact-finding missions” and “comprehensive investigations.”
In a statement it said the commission would work with the Kiribati Police Service and the Attorney General’s Office if findings showed laws had been violated.
The President Taneti Maamau has declared a public holiday today “as a solemn day of remembrance and to honour those who have lost their lives in this tragedy.”
The official mourning period started Wednesday.
Government ministries and businesses are among those instructed to fly the national flag at half mast and people have been asked to wear black.
A national service is being held on Nonouti today attended by “a high level delegation” from the government and the seven survivors who have been flown back to the island from Tarawa.
The president said local vessels and aircraft were still continuing to search for the missing.
Meanwhile, the Government of Kiribati says it does not want foreign journalists entering the country to report on a ferry disaster before the incident has been investigated.
About 93 people are missing and are presumed dead after the ferry, an 18-metre wooden catamaran, capsized after it left Nonouti island on January 18, headed for the capital Tarawa.
The ABC contacted the Government this week to outline its intention to travel to Tarawa to interview leaders, survivors, relatives, and officials about the impact the disaster is having on the small country and what is being done in response.
But a Government spokesman said via email that, “it would not be an appropriate time to carry out interviews” on the issue.
Asked for a more detailed explanation of why the ABC would not be allowed to cover the story if it travelled to Kiribati, the spokesman wrote, “the only reason is that the Commission of Inquiry will now begin its full investigation”.
Over the phone, the spokesman said the ABC would not be allowed to interview anyone about the disaster if it entered the country.
Kiribati’s founding president and now Opposition MP for Nonouti, Sir Ieremia Tabai, said the decision to restrict foreign journalists is baffling.
“I don’t know why the Government is so sensitive,” he said.
“This is a free country and the media is part of our system.”
Pacific Freedom Forum chair Monica Miller said she has never heard of a Pacific government restricting foreign journalists from covering a specific incident.
“I know that this is a tragedy that saddens all of us, but I think the situation will be made worse if we were to put a lid on overseas journalists coming in and I would seriously urge the authorities responsible for this rather sad situation to please reconsider,” she said.
Miller said the move to restrict foreign journalists could backfire on the Kiribati Government.
“It just creates suspicion as to what’s really being hidden,” she said.
“I’m not saying that’s what’s happening, but this is the sort of thought that would come to mind.”
The story has made headlines around the world and several regional news organisations have been following it closely.
Twenty-three of the ferry’s 88 passengers were high school and primary school students heading to Tarawa for the start of term.
Seven survivors were found drifting in a dinghy eight days after the ferry went down and were rescued by a fishing boat.
The big question many locals have been asking is why it took more than a week for officials to notice the ferry was missing and to raise the alarm.
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