A leading Pacific journalist who has been barred from returning home to Vanuatu from Australia on Monday blamed his treatment on government unease at his coverage of China’s growing influence in the Pacific nation.

Vanuatu Daily Post media director Dan McGarry was stopped from boarding a flight from Brisbane to Port Vila on Sunday, with airline staff telling him that the immigration department was behind the move.

The travel ban comes just days after McGarry was told his work permit would not be renewed and the veteran reporter said he was being singled out over the Post’s stories about China’s activities in Vanuatu.

“They’re doing what every guilty-minded government does when faced with inconvenient facts,” he said.

“They’d rather shut me up – and shut me out – than engage honestly with the public about the stories we report.”

Beijing is vying for influence in the Pacific with traditional regional powers, including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

McGarry and the Post have reported extensively about Beijing’s funding of infrastructure projects in Vanuatu, as well as a passports-for-sale scheme in Port Vila that largely involves Chinese nationals.

But he believes the government was most incensed over an expose filed in July about Chinese police entering the country and deporting six criminal suspects – four of whom had Vanuatu passports – without any reference to local courts.

McGarry, a Canadian national who has lived in Vanuatu for 16 years, said he wanted to get back to his partner and two young daughters in Port Vila.

“I’ve done nothing wrong. Everyone knows that… it’s just plain cruel to make innocent children suffer merely because we printed an uncomfortable truth.”

Vanuatu’s immigration department did not respond to a request for comment about the ban, which McGarry is appealing and says he will take to the courts it necessary.

The row comes after a television crew working for Australia’s 60 Minutes current affairs program was deported from Kiribati this month while filming a report on China’s presence in the region.

The crew had planned to conduct interviews about Kiribati’s sudden switch of diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in September but were placed under house arrest in their hotel.

They did manage to talk to opposition leader Titabu Tibane, who said he was uncomfortable with restrictions on the media, including the government’s ability to censor footage.

“This is the action of a communist country changing us around. This is a sad day for democracy,” he said in a report aired Sunday in Australia.

– AFP