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France / New Caledonia5 May 2006

French authorities asked to protect TV station’s staff in Pacific territory

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about threats and intimidation in recent weeks by a pro-independence union against the staff of the French public radio and TV broadcaster RFO in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, a semi-autonomous French territory in the Pacific.

The station has repeatedly been prevented from operating and almost all of its journalists and technicians have been affected, the organisation said, appealing to high commissioner Michel Mathieu, who represents the French central government in New Caledonia, to ensure that they are protected.

RFO’s evening news programme has been halted nine times since 24 March by members of the pro-independence Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE) bursting into the station’s studios at the last minute. The entire station’s functioning has also been intermittently paralysed during 11 days, for the most part by outsiders. The most recent blockage began on 3 May and is continuing.

A few days after the start of the protests, a outside broadcast truck was brought back to the station under union escort to prevent its use in the filming of a popular entertainment programme, Neuf Semaines et un Jour. When the programme was recorded, both the station director and technicians were barred from the auditorium where the recording was taking place. Union members inside and outside let no cameras in.

On 18 April, a cameraman was prevented from filming a demonstration related to a separate dispute about a proposed nickel plant in the south of New Caledonia. The station was again invaded by protesters from outside on 27 April and had to be evacuated. As journalists left, union activists searched their cars to ensure that were not taking their cameras with them.

The journalists who are not supporting the protests have described them as extremely humiliating. Sometimes pushed and jostled, they have constantly been the target of racist, homophobic and sexist insults as well as threats and other forms of harassment designed to obstruct their work. To keep providing news, the station has had to use a presenter-less programme edited in Paris in the afternoon for broadcast in New Caledonia at the start of the evening.

The dispute dates back to 2004 when the USTKE called a strike that lasted 104 days in support of a Kanak technician employed by RFO who wanted a higher grade. The dispute was revived when the technician was recently fired for “grave misconduct.” Kanak is a term used by indigenous Melanesians to refer to themselves. They represent about 45 per cent of New Caledonia’s population.

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