Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Judicial High Noon for Fiji Times leaves media ‘independence’ teetering

Fiji Times chief editor Fred Wesley ... suspended jail sentence. Photo: Media Freedom in the Pacific
video frame/Cafe Pacific
HARD on the heels of a new decree by Fiji’s military-backed regime effectively gagging reporting about political parties no longer officially “registered”, the country’s most influential newspaper Fiji Times has been clobbered judicially. It has paid a tough price - including a F$300,000 fine and suspended jail sentence for the editor - for “scandalising” the judiciary over reprinting a story from a national New Zealand Sunday newspaper on its sport pages.

“Within Fiji's media industry it is expected that this heavy fine will knock the publication out of business,” writes Fairfax’s Michael Field, a long-time critic of the regime. The draconian 2010 Fiji Media Industry Development Decree, although not involved in this contempt of court case, was widely believed to be aimed at the Fiji Times group, especially a punitive curb aimed at divesting foreign ownership to a maximum of 10 percent. This forced Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney-based News Limited group to cut its losses and sell out completely in 2010 to one of the newspaper's long-standing Fiji directors, Mahendra “Mac” Patel and his Motibhai Group.

“Is ‘Mac” Patel  a fit and proper person to preside over the stewardship of Fiji’s oldest newspaper, founded in Levuka in 1869?,” asks Grubsheet columnist Graham Davis, a media advocate for the regime, noting the businessman had already served a year-long jail sentence for abuse of office when he was chairman of Fiji Post. “The continuing drama at the Fiji Times still has a long way to go.”

The Fiji Times ... fined $300,000. Photo: FBC News
A blog posting signed "Petaia" branded the Fiji Times as a “serial contempt of court offender”. It is the second time in five years that the newspaper has faced a heavy penalty for contempt.

“In 2008, contempt proceedings were brought against the paper, the then editor-in-chief, Netani Rika, and the then publisher, Rex Gardener.  In that instance, the Fiji Times was fined $100,000, Rika received a three-month suspended prison term and Rika and Gardener were both required to enter into good behaviour bonds.”
Criticising the "double whammy" against Fiji media freedom, the advocacy group Pacific Freedom Forum's co-chair Titi Gabi of Papua New Guinea says: "The verdict itself, given the circumstances, is clearly sending a warning on what media can expect to receive if they step one inch out of line - even by mistake."

In a Fiji Times article today, Nanise Loanakadavu reported
Fiji Times editor-in-chief Fred Wesley (right) with general manager
Hank Arts after the court ruling in Suva yesterday.
Photo: Jone Luvenitoga/FT
Fiji Times Limited has been ordered to pay a fine of $300,000 for contempt of court.

High Court judge Justice William Calanchini ordered the company to pay a fine $200,000 less than the $500,000 sought by the Attorney-General's office.

The court convicted The Fiji Times' former publisher Brian O'Flaherty and fined him $10,000.

The court also sentenced editor-in-chief Fred Wesley to six months imprisonment suspended for two years.

Fiji Times Limited, Mr O'Flaherty and Mr Wesley were also ordered to pay $2000 each to the Attorney-General's Office as costs of the application.

Justice Calanchini yesterday ordered that the $300,000 fine be paid to the High Court in Suva within 28 days.

He also ordered The Fiji Times and Mr Wesley to arrange for an apology directed to the judiciary of Fiji to be first drafted and submitted to the court for approval prior to being published in The Fiji Times within the next 28 days.

In 2011, Tai Nicholas made comments to a reporter of the New Zealand-based Sunday Star*Times responding to questions on former Fiji Football Association president Dr Muhammed Shamsud-Dean Sahu Khan's official position in the OFC and FIFA (International Federation of Football Association).

The Sunday Star*Times article that contained Mr Nicholas's comments was published verbatim in [The Fiji Times] the following day [7 November 2011].

Those comments, according to an affidavit filed by the Attorney-General's office in November 2011, were said to "scandalise the court and the judiciary of Fiji in that they were a scurrilous attack on the members of the judiciary, thereby lowering the authority of the judiciary and the court".

In his judgment, Justice Calanchini said this was a case of contempt of court which should be punished by a penalty that reflects the public interest, acts as a deterrent and appropriately denounces the conduct of the respondents.

"This is not a case where the mere ordeal of court proceedings and an offer to pay costs with an apology is sufficient," Justice Calanchini said.

He said such an approach would suggest that the court does not take seriously the role of safeguarding the community from scurrilous attacks on its judiciary amounting to contempt scandalising the court.

Justice Calanchini said contempt of court was serious as a matter of principle because it was directed towards the whole judiciary of Fiji and the court at a time of Fiji's on-going constitutional development.

He said as a matter of principle the publication scandalise[d] the entire judiciary and the court in so far as there was a real risk that the effect of the publication would be to undermine the authority of the court and discourage citizens from relying on the judiciary to settle their disputes.

"The publication represents a real risk to the effective administration of justice in Fiji," he added.
The "scurrilous" attack on the judiciary included an opinion voiced by Nicholas, as quoted by the Sunday Star*Times in reference to another court case, that: “You should be aware that with no judiciary there [in Fiji] ... it is not a court per se.” Nicholas pleaded guilty to contempt in his own case and was fined $15,000 on February 9.

Editor-in-chief Fred Wesley’s editorial today was about the "resilient people" of the Western Division in response to the havoc wreaked by the recent Cyclone Evan floodwaters. No comment about the havoc from the High Court judgment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Media solidarity teeters even more with the Fiji Sun's headline on this case:
Is this balanced reporting or vindictive gloating?

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