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Kiribati accused of 'cover-up' over ferry disaster

© NEW ZEALAND DEFENCE FORCE/AFP/File | A dinghy from the MV Butiraoi ferry that sank off Kiribati is spotted from the air carrying seven survivors

WELLINGTON (AFP) - 

The Kiribati government faced criticism Friday for obstructing foreign journalists attempting to cover a major ferry disaster that has left the tiny Pacific nation in mourning.

More than 80 people, including 23 children, died when the ferry MV Butiraoi sank on January 18, the same day it set off from Nonouti island bound for the capital South Tarawa.

The alarm was not raised until eight days later, with a subsequent search finding seven survivors in a dinghy and only scattered debris from the missing ferry.

Michael Morrah, a journalist with New Zealand's Newshub, said he and a camera operator had their passports seized when they arrived in Kiribati this week to report on the disaster.

He said immigration officials also visited their hotel and demanded they delete interviews with the ferry's owner and a couple who survived the sinking.

"They said we were no longer allowed to report on the ferry sinking in Kiribati," Morrah told Radio New Zealand.

"The reason for this was because, in their words, the sinking was a very sensitive matter."

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation also reported this week that officials told its journalists they would not be welcome to travel to Kiribati and report on the tragedy.

Morrah rejected the government's argument that media interviews with those connected to the tragedy would interfere with an official inquiry into the sinking.

"I think it's a step backwards for democracy and the principles of openness and transparency that we've become used to in the Pacific," said the reporter, who left Kiribati on Thursday.

Teena Brown Pulu, a specialist in Pacific development at Auckland University of Technology, said journalists should not face political obstruction.

"(It's) not the time for a cover-up. What is (the) government hiding from the public?" she tweeted.

Former Kiribati president Ieremia Tabai said he was baffled at the government's handling of the media.

"This is a free country and the media is part of our system," he told the ABC.

Officials are yet to explain why it took eight days to launch a search and why the 17.5-metre (57-foot) wooden catamaran was carrying so many passengers.

Ferries are a transport lifeline in Kiribati, which consists of 33 atolls and reefs scattered over an area the size of the continental United States.

The country's last major ferry disaster was in 2009, when the Uean Te Rao II sank with the loss of 35 lives.

A subsequent investigation found the vessel was unseaworthy and not carrying an emergency beacon, flares or sufficient life jackets.

It also found safety standards on the Kiribati domestic fleet were not sufficiently enforced.

© 2018 AFP