Drop ‘politically-motivated’ sedition case against Fiji Times, says AI

Fiji Times publisher Hank Arts (front) and editor-in-chief Fred Wesley at court in March when the charges were amended to sedition. Image: FBC News

The Fijian authorities must immediately drop politically-motivated sedition charges against The Fiji Times newspaper group, says Amnesty International.

“By charging The Fiji Times with sedition, the Fijian authorities are using a crude tactic to intimidate and silence one of the few independent media outlets left in the country,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“Journalists and media houses should be allowed to do their legitimate work freely and without fear of reprisals. The dark days when official censors roamed Fijian newsrooms, telling them what they can and cannot print, are best left in the past.”

Fijian prosecutors amended charges in an ongoing case against The Fiji Times Limited to sedition on Friday, putting the newspaper group’s publisher Hank Arts, editors Fred Wesley and Anare Ravula, and a letter writer at risk of a maximum seven years’ imprisonment. If they are imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider them prisoners of conscience.

The sedition charge was due to be heard this week, on Tuesday, but has been postponed until May 9.

The Fiji Times Limited is one of the world’s oldest newspaper groups. It publishes the English-language daily, The Fiji Times, founded in 1869, and the weekly iTaukei vernacular newspaper, Nai Lalakai.

The prosecutors were initially pursuing charges of inciting “communal antagonism” against The Fiji Times Limited in response to a reader’s letter published in the group’s iTaukei-language daily, Nai Lalakai, on 27 April 2016.

The letter contained controversial views about Muslims. It was not written by any member of The Fiji Times Limited, but by a member of the public and published in the readers’ letters section, without the newspaper endorsing the views contained in it.

“The letter was distasteful, but its author has a right to their views, as long as they do not incite violence. The authorities are failing on their obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression under international law. It is the job of a newspaper to be a forum for different views, even if it may cause some offence,” said Josef Benedict.

“The fact that the authorities have seized on this one letter to bring charges against editors and publisher who did not write it, makes clear that the case is politically-motivated. The Fiji Times has a strong record of journalistic independence, a tradition that is now imperilled by these charges.”

Since Fiji’s current Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, came to power in a 2006 military coup, The Fiji Times has often been a target of the authorities. For several years, a regime of heavy censorship was in place, where officially appointed censors roamed newsrooms, deciding what could and could not be published in the next day’s paper. The Fiji Times was one of the few news outlets to stoically refuse to print censored articles, leaving blank spaces on the page instead.

At the time, Bainimarama justified the censorship regime by saying, “They can print whatever they want. But irresponsible journalism is not going to be tolerated.”

In 2012, Fiji Times Limited, and its editor, Fred Wesley, were found guilty of contempt of court for reprinting a sports article that was first published in New Zealand which contained criticisms of Fiji’s judiciary. The newspaper was fined US$170,000 and its editor received a two year-suspended sentence.

In 2010, the Fijian government introduced a Media Decree that imposed excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and limited foreign investors from owning more than 10 percent of a Fijian media outlet – a measure that appeared to single out The Fiji Times, then 90 percent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.

Under the new regulations, the newspaper has come under Fijian ownership and sustains its journalism without any government advertising.

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