Thursday, January 22, 2009

Found guilty, but Fiji Times will fight on for free speech

WHILE the media fraternity was aghast at the assault on media freedom with the High Court verdict holding The Fiji Times in contempt over a letter to the editor, the newspaper itself was rather philosophical. But it made it very clear it intends to challenge the ruling on free speech issues. Its editorial "The law must take its course" today said:

We accept our guilt and will endeavour never to appear before the courts again. This newspaper will be the first to accept that the judiciary must exist in any real democracy. It will also defend the rights of our people to an independent judicial system. We must point out, however, that we do not necessarily agree with all of the judgment, and we do not agree with the penalties imposed on us by the judgment. There are avenues open to this newspaper to appeal and we will pursue these vigorously, as is our right.
Photo: Fiji Times picture of lawyer Richard Naidu (left) and acting publisher Rex Gardner outside court.

The bad news is that the penalties are extraordinarily harsh for what some might regard as fairly mild criticism of the judiciary in Fiji (published on the FT website on 22 October 2008 and condemning a judgment finding the Bainimarama coup in 206 not illegal). But Justice Thomas Hickie, an Australian, regarded the comments as "scandalous". These are indeed Orwellian times in the Pacific nation. The good news is that the punishment wasn't as bad as the military-backed regime had wanted - ie. a $1 million fine and actual jail terms for the paper's editor-in-chief and acting publisher. In fact, the paper was fined F$100,000. The court also imposed a three-month jail sentence suspended for two years on editor-in-chief Netani Rika and a conditional discharge for acting publisher Rex Gardner on good behaviour for 12 months. The newspaper has also been ordered to pay a $50,000 good behaviour bond for two years.

International Federation of Journalists led the charge of media outrage. Sydney-based Asia-Pacific director Jacqueline Park said: "The court's decision has serious implications for Fiji's media and the right to free expression in an environment where freedom of the press has been sorely tested over the past year." The IFJ is worried about this verdict as a backdrop to the regime's planned new media law, which some are predicting to be draconian. But some local journalists on the ground also regard it as a "wake up call" over ethics, morality, responsibility and the subjudice laws when they say material published by Fiji papers has frequently breached the boundaries. Interim Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told Radio Australia - putting his own spin on the judgment - that "standards have [been] completely thrown out the window". The AG ticked off many journalists from Australia and NZ for seemingly "dropping their standards" while in Fiji and condemned "trial by media". He added that he thought it would be a judgment widely cited in Commonwealth jurisdictions.

Ironically, a three-member Fiji Media Council independent review team has been meeting in Suva this week looking at media accountability and freedom issues. The Media Council itself declined to comment on the court ruling. The next question is what will happen to the Fiji Daily Post - more of the same? A verdict is expected in April.

Meanwhile, announcing a new blog devoted to Fiji affairs, Professor Croz Walsh says:

NZ media coverage of the Fiji situation has been so unbalanced that most New Zealanders see no difference between the Fiji and Zimbabwe situations. A friend told me yesterday: "That Bainimarama. he's just another Mugabe." Fiji media is more balanced but even then the ratio of negative to positive views is about 3:1. Today's court news from Fiji is sure to further demonstrate the need for a blog to offer some sort of balance.


Dominika White said...

I can't recall any NZ media outlet being fined so heavily for contempt of court. Can the Fiji Times even survive such a harsh penalty?

Anonymous said...

Harsh sentence

I CAN'T understand why such a harsh sentence has been imposed on the editor of The Fiji Times for publishing a letter to editor which criticised the court for being less then impartial in the politically controversial case between Bainimarama, the coup executor, and Qarase the deposed Prime minister.

In his number one bestseller Stupid White Men, the award winning writer and documentary film maker Michael Moore wrote George W Bush became President and Commander-in-Chief after the 2000 presidential election only, "because he was anointed by his daddy's friends on the Supreme Court".

I can't recall Moore being charged for contempt of court.


>>> Popular Café Pacific Posts