This is now an archive – for the time being

St Helena Online has provided independent, professional news and features coverage of one of the world’s most isolated islands for more than four years, and provided strong support for independent media on St Helena.

For now, the site is quietly sleeping while I work in the background on a time-consuming, complex issue involving human rights and media freedom. We’ll see what happens after that.

The last story I published was about the impending official opening of St Helena’s first airport. The opening never happened: after Britain spent £285 million building the airport, it proved too dangerous for large passenger aircraft to land on it because of unpredictable wind turbulence near the runway – an incredible outcome and a disaster for the island.

It is not possible for me to cover that story adequately at present, but I can direct readers to the excellent work being done by the St Helena Independent – available on line from Friday evenings. Editor Vince Thompson is more concerned with finding out what is being done to put things right than with “blame journalism”. There aren’t many answers to the former but he’s unearthing some intriguing information about what’s gone wrong.

Cheers for now

Simon Pipe, owner of St Helena Online

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Prince to open St Helena Airport

Prins Edward, earl av Wessex - version 4

Prince Edward, Duke of Wessex (picture: Wikimedia commons)

Prince Edward, the Queen’s third son, is to perform the official opening ceremony for St Helena Airport – as long as safety inspectors have given clearance for it to become operational.

From St Helena Government:

The historic opening of St Helena Airport is planned for the morning of Saturday 21 May 2016 – St Helena’s National Day.  It will be marked by a public ceremony at the Airport site, with royal guest HRH The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, in attendance.

All members of the public will be invited to attend this special event, ahead of the traditional St Helena’s Day entertainments in Jamestown.

As is usual, New Horizons will be organising the traditional programme of events for St Helena’s Day.  But this year, this will be preceded by the official opening of St Helena Airport at the aerodrome organised by SHG, Enterprise St Helena, New Horizons and Basil Read – subject, of course, to prior certification of the airport.

Preparations for the opening ceremony are ongoing and further details will follow in due course.

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Voyage to investigate illegal fishing off Ascension: reporting ban on St Helena media is lifted

extractor 640

A criminal investigation has been carried out into illegal fishing around Ascension Island.

But the media on St Helena were banned from reporting on an investigatory expedition aboard the MFV Extractor until it was over (archive picture by Bruce Salt).

No details of the operation have emerged from official sources at the time of writing.

An injunction was served on Mike Olsson, editor of the St Helena Independent, and Saint FM Community Radio, to prevent them reporting on the voyage for fear of alerting the operators of illegal fishing vessels.

Other media on the island were also bound by the injunction.

Chief magistrate John MacRitchie said in his court judgement that the media would be “unlikely to potentially interfere with the course of justice, if the situation is explained to them”.

He said acting attorney general Angelo Berbotto had failed to explain why the media should avoid reporting the voyage of the MFV Extractor.

He also rebuked Mike Olsson for giving a forthright response to a threatening email from Mr Berbotto. This was blamed for a breakdown in communications that prompted Mr Berbotto to take the extraordinary and draconian step of seeking an injunction at the 11th hour, disrupting publication of the 5 February 2016 edition of the St Helena Independent.

In his judgement in the case, Mr MacRitchie said the injunction would mean inhibiting the freedom of the press – “an extremely important right”.

But he said this was outweighed by the need to prevent “interference with the detection of serious crimes, which are specifically said to be taking place around Ascension  island.”

The affair has raised a number of human rights issues that are expected to be examined in the coming days.

There is also likely to be scrutiny of the actions of Mr Berbotto and the legal service on St Helena.

  • COMMENT: Responsible efforts by St Helena Online to find out the scope of reporting restrictions were unsuccessful. This resulted in the site being unable to report on matters of clear public interest that could, in fact, have been made public, without risk of perverting the course of justice. This became clear when a copy of the court judgement was received on Friday, 4 March 2016, only a day before the injunction would expire. I regard this obstruction as an unwarranted restraint on my human right to freedom of expression and will be considering my response. Simon Pipe, owner, St Helena Online

 

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House that: Andy auctions stamp painting for island charity

first day cover by andy crowe 1280Andy Crowe’s vivid paintings of St Helena’s capital city provided a colourful theme for a set of postage stamps. And now one of them is to be sold at auction to raise some capital for an island charity.

Readers are invited to place sealed bids in time for the auction on 17 March 2016.

Andy went to St Helena to improve social housing on the island, but made his mark in other ways as well: not least as a costumed stand-in for Napoleon at community events.

In his spare time he indulged his talent as an artist. The colours and shapes of buildings in Jamestown were a favourite theme.

Back home in the UK at the end of his contract, he has decided to take time out of housing work to chance his arm – as he puts it – as a working artist. He’s already built up a full order book.

He was so delighted to have his paintings chosen for the island stamps that he has decided to sell off his favourite, showing Main Street, for an island cause.

He says: “The proceeds will go to a St Helena charity, yet to be decided (mainly because I have no idea what the painting will sell for).

“I have also offered to auction a painting, again for a St Helena charity, when the RMS St Helena is moored in London.”

He bought up 100 copies of the first day cover showing his stamps and gave half of them to family and friends. He is selling signed copies of the rest at £15 a time – having allowed the Post Office to reproduce the originals for no fee.

The original of his Main Street scene will be auctioned as part of a sale at the Grosvenor Auction House in The Strand, London. Details can be found on Andy’s website (see the link below).

As St Helena’s first housing officer, Andy had to address severe problems with the state of government housing, as well as coming up with designs for new rented homes. Funding for them is still awaited. The job was challenging, but life on the island was rewarding.

On his website, Andy tells how he developed his technique of using a palette knife and brushes to produce of paintings of Frigiliana in Andalucia, where he had his first solo exhibition in 2009.

On St Helena, he found it “a challenge to apply the same knife and brush angles” to the rugged volcanic cliffs and vivid colours of Jamestown.

He arrived on the island in 2012 and by December 2014 his collection was large enough to warrant an exhibition in the Museum of St Helena.

“The exhibition was a great success, resulting in 12 commissions and the honour of having four of my paintings reproduced as postage stamps,” he says.

Contact Andy to find out more via his website, www.frigiliarte.com (click on More in the top menu).
Place a bid for the painting at www.grosvenorauctions.com

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Last hurrah for St Helena boatmen as sea freight deal is signed

A contract to operate a cargo ship to replace the RMS St Helena has been signed – and it will include a small number of passenger berths for the Ascension run.

The deal with AW Ship Management Ltd has been completed four months before the planned retirement date for the RMS St Helena. The company has yet to buy a ship to operate the service.

But it appears the legendary skills of the St Helena boatmen in unloading cargo at sea will no longer be needed: the new vessel will be able to berth at the wharf that is nearing completion in Rupert’s Bay.

It will sail from Cape Town to St Helena and back every five weeks, moving to a four-weekly cycle after a year. It will also operate a voyage to Ascension every two months.

It is expected to depart Cape Town for the first time voyage to St Helena on 27 July 2016, arriving on 2 August.

Unlike the RMS St Helena, the new service will not be subsidised, meaning some cargo prices may rise.

A St Helena Government statement says:

“The intention is for the new cargo service to continue on as seamlessly as possible from the St Helena Line service.

“AW Ship Management will now move ahead with purchasing its own vessel dedicated to the St Helena and Ascension service. ”

“The ship selected will be a geared container ship capable of carrying 250 TEU or equivalent. The vessel will be around 100m long, with a breadth of approximately 18m and a summer draft of 4.5m. Thus, AWSM will be able to discharge cargo alongside at Rupert’s Bay even in a fully loaded condition.

“Cargo bookings for the new service are now being accepted. AWSM’s agents and contact details remain the same as the current service for ease of transition.

“AWSM will be making a small number of passenger cabins available on the new vessel so that passenger sea services can be maintained for those wishing to travel by sea to and from Ascension.

“The dedicated ship for this service will be owned by AWSM and operated with the same skill and dedication that has been applied to the RMS St Helena since 2001. The use of a dedicated ship will ensure that a reliable schedule can be maintained.

“AWSM has been involved in the shipping of cargo to and from St Helena for sixteen years and is fully aware of the importance of a regular, reliable and direct freight service to the island.”

Freight rates are expected to be “broadly the same as the rates for the RMS”. They have been submitted to the island government for approval.

“It is inevitable that rates for certain types of cargo will have to rise given that the RMS is heavily subsidised, but AWSM has worked hard to ensure that such increases are kept to an absolute minimum.”

Pricing will take account of fuel prices, exchange rates and anticipated volumes.

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Connect fined £10,500 for threat to wirebirds

A “reckless failure” to protect two wirebirds has landed Connect St Helena with a fine of £10,500.

St Helena Magistrates’ Court heard that it let a contractor start work on its solar farm before full planning consent had been given – with measures to protect the endangered birds.

Conservationists in the UK praised the island’s planning and legal systems for acting swiftly to protect “one of the world’s rarest shorebirds”.

A court report said Connect St Helena halted the work as soon as it was alerted by officials. It pleaded guilty to allowing the unnamed independent local contractor to start work on the site before full development permission had been granted.

The report said: “The court found that Connect had been reckless in their failure to put in place and to enforce a system for protecting at least two wirebirds which had been seen at the development site.

“The court further concluded that there had been a risk of significant harm, due to the potentially long lasting effect on such wirebirds, being one of the rarest and therefore most endangered species of birds in the world.”

It said the company had otherwise complied effectively with planning regulations.

“The incident was however considered to be a very serious offence and the court accordingly fined Connect the sum of £10,500 with costs of £15.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has funded wirebird conservation on St Helena, said: “The RSPB applauds the work of the planning and legal authorities in this matter.

“The wirebird is one of the world’s rarest shorebirds, with only about 430 adults remaining.

“Planning rules need to be followed if St Helena is to protect its remarkable environment and realise the benefits of eco-tourism.”

The £10,000 fine is small when seen against the million pounds Connect was given approval to invest in its first solar farm in 2014.

Panels on the farm at Half Tree Hollow capture the sun’s rays to generate electricity.

Along with wind turbines on Deadwood Plain, they help the island generate more than 30% of its electricity from renewable sources – more than double the rate in the UK.

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All’s well for airport opening says Castle as silence on test flights stirs doubts in UK media

The target opening date for St Helena’s airport remains 21 May 2016, despite “challenges” meeting safety demands, officials in The Castle have insisted.

St Helena Government also said there was “nothing new” in a comment about problems with the island’s terrain, quoted in UK media reports.

The UK’s Independent newspaper quoted project director Janet Lawrence saying: “Due to the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain, changes in design had to be made to facilitate that.”

One pilots’ forum member said: “Would Ms Lawrence now cease the ‘spin’ and tell everyone just exactly what the nature of the problem is?

“Something of an apparently fundamental nature that would delay opening the airport at this late stage could be seen as the sign of a enormous c**k up.”

The story blew up within days of a formal deadline for Basil Read to complete the construction of the airport – 26 February 2016.

The official opening was put back to St Helena’s Day in May after the first test flight to Prosperous Bay Plain found significant problems with navigation and landing aids.

No announcement has ever been made about extending the hand-over date in Basil Read’s contract.

The first calibration flights resulted in high-tech VHF radio equipment and antennae having to be moved.

Two months have now passed without news of success from a second round of flights to test the relocated landing aids.

The silence prompted questions from members of the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (PPRuNe). Then the Independent newspaper ran its story under the headline, St Helena Airport Open, But Where’s The Planes?

A re-hash of the article then appeared on the Mail Online, the biggest English language news website in the world, visited by more than 14 million browsers in January 2016.

Chris Pickard, the island’s new tourism director, was upbeat about the impact of the media coverage, saying such stories attract the attention of potential tourists (see separate article).

The reports picked up on an open letter from Richard Brown of Atlantic Star airline, saying the “complexity” of remaining work on the airport meant it could not start selling tickets for its first charter flight from the UK to St Helena.

Its first flight had already been put back from Easter to the UK summer.

There has been no word of a start date for weekly flights from Johannesburg by the South African airline Comair.

The question now is how difficult it will be to fix any remaining problems that have been identified – and who will do the work, and who is liable to pay for it.

Janet Lawrence’s comment about uneven terrain has been seen as a suggestion that the problems may involve fencing or equipment close to the steep and fragile cliffs around the airport.

But a statement from The Castle in Jamestown said otherwise:

“The UK Independent report references a conversation with Airport Director Janet Lawrence about the challenges of constructing an airport in such an isolated location and on such difficult terrain.  She used examples such as the Open Channel [diverting water from the filled-in Dry Gut] and Rupert’s Wharf to illustrate the continual design process under this project.

“There is nothing new here, including about terrain, turbulence or the approach.

“Even after all these challenges, we are still aiming for 21 May 2016 for the official opening of St Helena Airport.

“Janet also reported on the Tony Leo show on 13 January that the calibration flights had done ‘just what it says on the box’.”

The statement said that project firm Basil Read had since been preparing paperwork required for the airport to be certified and cleared for commercial flights by the ASSI (Air Safety Support International).

The ASSI says it can take 40 working days to returned detailed findings on tests, “and we are still well within this timeframe,” said the government statement.

“The aviation industry is highly regulated and for obvious reasons. By the time of certification, there will have been hundreds of hours of flight simulations proving that flights into and out of St Helena Airport can be undertaken safely.

“An enormous amount has been achieved. Developing a world class facility for St Helena is a huge and complex project.  We’re now on the home straight and all parties are working flat out to achieve certification and the opening of the airport for commercial flights at the earliest possible opportunity.”

One member of the pilots forum wrote: “If the airport doesn’t open perhaps it could be used as a penal colony for all the civil servants involved in the scheme, to be sent there to break up the concrete etc by hand.”

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Test flights ‘blackout’ puts rumour forum into tailspin

Efforts to meet the highest possible safety standards at St Helena Airport may have “come to bite” the construction team, a post on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network has suggested.

“All I can assume is that the engineers planning the airport played it safe and threw in every possible navaid that might be useful,” says a forum member who uses the name Broken Biscuit.

“After all, the navaids were probably quite a small percentage of the £250m of UK taxpayers’ money that went to build it.”

The UK-based writer, picking up on silence about the outcome of a second round of test flights to the airport, goes on to acknowledge the problems posed by the airport’s location.

“Presumably they didn’t want to limit operations in the event of GPS problems – it is in the tropics after all with the higher likelihood of ionospheric effects.

“And they’re starting 1,000 feet closer to the cloudbase with its cliff-top location. Add in the fact that it’s a shortish runway, quite a crosswind most of the year and probably severe turbulence as you approach the cliffs, pilots will need all the help they can to land safely.

“Oh, and I forgot the high terrain all around – you’ll want to remember to turn away from that smartish in the event of a go around!”

The same writer notes that the VHF radio gear [DVOR] and various antennae had to be moved after the first calibration flights in October 2015.

“They no longer illuminate the sea – I suspect that there was severe cancellation of the signals at some distance/height due to reflection off the ocean.

“Another possibility is that the DVOR was located just metres away from Bradley’s Camp – all metal buildings – used for the construction crew but also going to be converted into long term tourist accommodation.

“So the choice of some navaids which may be unnecessary has come to bite them.”

A writer using the name TCAS FAN questions a media quote about “the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain,” saying surveys should have removed such doubts.

But another forum member, Ddraig Goch, suggests the terrain may actually be causing problems with “nav and landing aids, which because of where St Helena is and the position of the runway require more sophisticated equipment than your bog standard airport.

“I have been asking for the results of the second calibration flights without success for ages. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence with much that happens there.”

In another post, Broken Biscuits says: “I take the deathly silence from the St Helena Government and their contractors Basil Read over the second round of calibration flights to mean the navaids still don’t come up to spec, despite having been relocated.

“You would think that, if the calibrators had found all reasonably good that some sort of positive statement would have been made. Instead they talked about it all having to be analysed in London very carefully…

“There might be big discussions going on about who is liable for the costs of the delayed opening, which may explain the public silence.”

Moving equipment could be the result of “a pretty basic failure of design”, says Broken Biscuit. “We can only speculate given the news blackout from the project team and government.

“There’s now about 90 odd days before the opening ceremony – I wonder if there’ll be a plane on the apron to add some authenticity to the celebrations?”

Read the PPRuNe forum posts on St Helena Airport

 

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Airport ‘non-story’ is worth many thousands, says tourism chief

Gloomy stories about St Helena are great news for the island – because they come with beautiful pictures that pull in potential visitors all round the world, writes director of tourism CHRIS PICKARD.

 

The UK’s Independent newspaper recently ran an article suggesting that the first flights to St Helena, and the opening of the airport, had been delayed. The article, subsequently picked up by the Mail, was something of a non-story: a cut-and-paste job that took a series of random quotes, many out of context, and then came up with the result that 2+2=5.

Negative reporting of tourism and infrastructure projects is nothing new for me. But if asked as director of tourism for St Helena if I was happy to see the stories about the airport in print in the UK, I would have to say Yes.

Between them they created hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of positive publicity for St Helena as a destination and brought the island to the attention of many potential visitors, thanks to the images used.

It is very important to take St Helena out of the tourism pages and in to the main news sections of the media. That is what helps to promote and develop a destination.

So while I am delighted with all the positive coverage the island has generated recently in the travel sections of the international media, I am even happier when I see St Helena being covered in the other news pages and sections of the media. But I am experienced enough to know that these will not always be 100% positive.

An example of non-tourism coverage is the recent stories about Jonathan, which generated a lot of interest in people wanting to come to the island, as did reports on new species being found.

While I did not agree with everything he wrote, Matthew Engel’s cover story in the Financial Times’ weekend magazine also generated many hundreds of thousands pounds’ worth of positive publicity.

And not just in the UK: I got feedback from North and South America, Australia, and across Europe from people who, having read the FT piece, wanted to come to St Helena or set up tours to the island.

The result of all this coverage has been that people in the right circles are talking positively about St Helena in terms of helping to contribute to building a sustainable tourism industry.

Sadly for the island, St Helena Tourism is already having to turn away business or put it on hold, but that has nothing to do with the airport or air access and when it starts, but is down to not having a sufficient amount of the right type of accommodation that tour operators demand. But that is something we are working to resolve.

International tour operators, many of which I have worked with over the years, have been contacting us to get information about what St Helena has to offer, and most are now putting together one week packages to the island. They know me well enough to be sure that when St Helena is ready for them, and the flights have started, I will let them know.

We all work on facts, not fiction or speculation.

What people on St Helena will need to understand, however, is that like it or not we are now playing on the global stage, and global tourism is extremely competitive. St Helena – as I know from the conversations I have had with other tourism directors who are jealous of the media attention we have been generating – is firmly on the radar and that means there will be people looking to knock us down.

It also means that the media will be interested in writing news stories about the island, both good and bad, and that is because we are now news and the readers are interested. That is how I like it.

Far more negative is likely to be the coverage on Trip Advisor and other review sites as the visitors themselves – not the media – judge what we have to offer and the service levels behind it. Saints and others working in travel and tourism on the island will have to develop a thick skin.

As crazy as it may seem, my job is to make the St Helena Tourism strapline of “Secret of the South Atlantic” redundant, and if that means putting my hand up and apologising to the Saints who for personal or business reasons wish to keep the island a secret, so be it.

2015 was a record year for St Helena is terms of international visitors, and that is before the airport opens. So there are lots of positive things to look forward to in terms of tourism and what it can bring to the island.

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More action planned on illegal fishing – minister

The UK government is planning to step up efforts to investigate illegal fishing around St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, it has been revealed.

The House of Lords heard that short term patrols and satellite monitoring are already used to track fishing vessels around the islands.

But it appears the islands do not yet benefit from oversight by the UK’s National Maritime Information Centre – set up in 2011 to detect dangers such as sea-borne terrorist threats.

The centre does protect waters around two other overseas territories chosen as Marine Protected Zone – and a third such zone is planned for Ascension, suggesting it may get similar protection.

Lord West of Spithead

Lord West of Spithead

The information was disclosed by foreign minister Baroness Anelay in response to a question by Lord West of Spithead on 3 February 2016.

He asked whether the new agency “is providing comprehensive surface coverage of the exclusive economic zones of dependent territories to ensure wildlife and resource protection; and how those zones are policed, in particular around Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and St Helena.”

Baroness Anelay replied that the centre was helping to investigate illegal and unregulated fishing around the British Indian Ocean Territory – meaning the Chagos Islands – and Pitcairn, in the Pacific Ocean.

She said: “Overseas territories are policed in a variety of ways as marine management is a devolved responsibility.

“In St Helena, Ascension and Tristan de Cunha, a variety of surveillance and enforcement measures are deployed, including satellite monitoring, vessel tracking, short term patrols and observer coverage of fishing vessels.

“Potential enhancements to surveillance and enforcement requirements for the UK’s 14 overseas territories are being considered as part of the government’s commitment to create a Blue Belt around these territories.”

The planned Blue Belt of protected waters around all UK overseas territories was announced with great fanfare at a reception at the House of Commons in September 2015.

Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith declared it “the biggest conservation commitment by any government ever.”

 

It includes a plan to create a vast protected zone around Ascension, with only limited sustainable fishing allowed – similar to zones already established or announced round the Chagos and Pitcairn islands.

“Blue belt” marine conservation zones, with lesser protection, are promised for all other territories, including St Helena.

People at the launch event heard how satellite and radar data are being used to detect fishing vessels by tracking the pattern of their movements.

The technique is described in a news report on the website of the Blue and Green Tomorrow campaign group.

It says: “Analysts can track declared fishing vessels and monitor the behaviour of undeclared ones.

“Container ships and cruise liners tend to go in straight lines. Fishing vessels tend to hover where there are fish. If a ship exhibits suspicious behaviour the relevant authority can be notified.”

The site says: “Industrial fishing ships can stay at sea for months refuelling and offloading stock mid-ocean. A quarter of all fishing is illegal. But the world’s oceans are a notoriously difficult place to monitor and protect.”

Lord West is a former Royal Navy officer who rose to become First Sea Lord and later Chief of Defence Intelligence.

He is also chairman of Spearfish, a company the helps clients “manage physical security risks – both on land and at sea.”

His listed interests include defence and the environment, and overseas territories in the South Atlantic.

Read more:
Biggest ever conservation commitment: UK overseas territories’ Blue Belt

(Original image of Lord West from Wikimedia Commons)

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