Pacific media freedom: The day the Fiji police arrested me at Sunday breakfast

Fiji Times journalist Serafina Silaitoga with a police officer
Flashback: Fiji Times journalist Serafina Silaitoga with a police officer in a van on their way to the police station on 10 August 2008. Image: The Fiji Times screenshot APR

By Serafina Silaitoga in Labasa, Fiji

It was a typical Sunday morning on August 10, 2008, as I enjoyed breakfast with the family, lots of laughter and jokes hearing stories shared by my children.

Suddenly, there was silence.

My children went quiet as they looked out the window to see three police vehicles drive into our compound at Y-Corner in Labasa.

A team of police personnel got out of the vehicle, walked up the stairs and handed me a warrant to search the house and The Fiji Times office at Labasa Civic Centre.

I was four months pregnant so I didn’t want to create a fuss and let them into the house.

My children aged between two and 12 years old were quiet.

They stared at the officers as they moved around the house carrying out their search.

Children in another room
To ensure they were not disturbed or affected, I told my children to move into one room where they could wait.

The officers entered the rooms and flipped through any papers and books they could find as evidence about an article I had written for The Fiji Times on August 7, 2008, about the then interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

In that article I had written that Chaudhry, a former prime minister ousted in the May 2000 civilian coup, had been told by the interim government that he was not to make any national decisions on finance and he was to leave office within a month.

Before my Sunday arrest, police officers had approached me at the Grand Eastern Hotel on Saturday night, the day the article was published.

I was at the hotel with our former editor Netani Rika, former chief photographer Asaeli Lave, former Fiji Times journalist Theresa Ralogaivau and our spouses.

When the officers approached they said: “We have come to arrest you on the order of our Police Commissioner, Esala Teleni”.

According to these officers, Teleni had received a directive to arrest me from a senior minister in the government.

I refused to go without our company lawyer.

Police returned
The officers then left, but it didn’t end there because they came home the next morning.

That night Labasa businessman Charan Jeath Singh, now the Minister for Sugar, was arrested by CID officers on the same Sunday night at Nausori Airport in connection with the same story.

After searching the house, the police took me to The Fiji Times office, looked through the drawers and looked through every notebook in search of evidence.

Whatever they found as evidence they took to the Labasa Police Station where I was also questioned.

The officers told me that if I didn’t reveal the source of information for the story they would lock me up in a police cell.

Lawyers reminded police
As I was being interrogated, Fiji Times lawyers Jon Apted and Richard Naidu were making phone calls to the police officers whose tone and expression then changed.

I’m positive that these lawyers reminded the officers of certain laws and policies because after those few phone calls, the police team softened down and there were no more threats.

I spent about four hours in the station.

I was then taken to the Grand Eastern Hotel in the police vehicle where I joined my former bosses, friends and family.

By the time I got into the police vehicle, news about my arrest was already on the radio and generating international interest as well.

Reporters called from around the world asking for updates about my arrest.

The unending support from the media family globally was so encouraging, that despite the circumstances and dictatorship, we never backed down from the truth.

That truth was revealed last year when the former Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, told the media after a few exchanges with Chaudhry that he had personally asked for Chaudhry’s resignation.

He said that he had, on the instructions of former prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama, gone personally to Chaudhry’s house one night to ask him to resign because of tax matters they said affected the government.

The truth shall prevail
After 15 years, the truth was finally told.

So The Fiji Times was right all along except that our families, especially our innocent children, had to witness the arrest and for some, torture that the past administration put them through.

The truth will always prevail.

Happy Media Freedom Day!

We have overcome!

Serafina Silaitoga is a Fiji Times reporter. This was first published by The Fiji Times on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2023, under the headline “The truth shall prevail” and is republished here with permission.

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