In the middle of the deadly coronavirus pandemic gripping the Northern Territory, the Gunner Government has banned the NT Independent from attending press conferences and from seeking information from government departments to report to the public.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s director of communications, Maria Billias, banned Independent staff on Thursday afternoon, shortly after they asked questions at a press conference held by Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison.
The NT Independent asked questions relating to quarantined Territorians forced into Darwin hotels, the NT Government’s decision to permit un-quarantined AFP officers who flew on board commercial flights into remote communities and a series of questions about the Gunner Government’s unchecked spending amid the pandemic.
NT Independent editor Christopher Walsh said he was surprised by the ban and questioned the government’s decision to suppress the public’s right to information at this precarious time.
“I knew this newspaper would upset the establishment, but I find it truly remarkable that the government would ban us and try to shut us down in the middle of a pandemic where getting information to the public is critical,” he said. “They claim they are focused on saving lives and jobs, but here they are restricting the public’s right to information. You really have to ask where their priorities are at this crucial time.”
“You really have to ask where their priorities are at this crucial time.”
The Independent is currently in the process of filing a brief of evidence and formal complaint to the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) on the grounds that the Gunner Government has engaged in undemocratic conduct, has coerced and influenced the apolitical and impartial public service to fight its personal grudges and has suppressed the public’s right to information in the time of a public health crisis.
Walsh is a well-known Darwin journalist, who previously worked as investigations producer for the ABC and as senior political reporter for the NT News during the previous Giles CLP administration, breaking investigative stories that cost politicians their jobs and led to a series of ‘excellence in reporting’ awards for his political coverage.
“This government can claim different reasons for banning this paper, but the simple fact is I have full editorial control and I think that might frighten them more than any silly insults being thrown around a Facebook page,” he said.
“This newspaper’s commitment is keeping the public informed about the government’s actions and we’ve already broken important stories no other media has about the pandemic and government decisions that affect the health of the community.”
The email from Ms Billias advised that the government will not provide information to the NT Independent because its publisher, Owen Pike, has been critical of the government on an unrelated Facebook page.
“The Government does not recognise the [NT Independent] website as an independent and reputable news media outlet given the nature of the ownership by Owen Pike,” Ms Billias wrote.
“Mr Pike runs a concerted online hate page against several members of government, including repeated derogatory and sexist references to female MLAs. Therefore we have no faith its integrity or independence can be guaranteed.”
Mr Pike strongly refuted the allegations of running a “hate page” and said his “Gumment” Facebook page was in no way linked to the NT Independent.
“I in no way stand away from my comments – it’s my right to have an opinion … However, this does not have anything to do with the NT Independent.”
“I strongly argue my detest of this government is justified based on their performance and their neglect of the NT’s people and businesses and I in no way stand away from my comments – it’s my right to have an opinion,” he said.
“However, this Facebook page does not have anything to do with the NT Independent and effort from the government to try and silence the voice of independent journalists only reflects on them.
“It baffles me how one man with a Facebook page can have so much effect. It definitely reflects on the government’s thin skin because, trust me, what I do takes little talent.
“The NT Independent has employed Chris Walsh who has full editorial control over what is written and how it is written. I simply could not have acquired his commitment if I could infiltrate the paper with my own political beliefs.”
Walsh said Ms Billias and other government staffers were made aware how the newspaper would operate, and that it would be reporting on all issues fairly and accurately, two months ago in a private meeting.
Walsh added the newspaper will continue to bring Territorians the most up to date information on the coronavirus pandemic as well as other original investigative and political content.
“The government can’t silence us, as much as they might want to,” he said.