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Reporter threatened, questioned by police over allegedly "seditious" article

(PINA/IFEX) - On 10 August 2008, Fiji police threatened and tried to force a "Fiji Times" reporter into giving a statement on an article she wrote, reports the "The Fiji Times".

The newspaper said police in the northern town of Labasa had been seeking reporter Serafina Silaitoga since the night of 8 August for a statement.

At 9:00 a.m. (local time) on 10 August, eight police officers armed with a search warrant arrived at her doorstep looking for notebooks and recordings of an interview she conducted with Labasa businessman Charan Jeath Singh.

Silaitoga had reported in an article that Singh challenged interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry to admit he received a letter of dismissal from the interim Prime Minister, and that he had two weeks left in office. Police are treating the article as seditious.

The police team took Silaitoga from her home in front of her four children to "The Fiji Times" office at the Labasa Civic Centre building, where she handed over a notebook and loose pages containing notes on the interview.

A visibly pregnant Silaitoga was put into a police van and driven to the station at Namara, where she was questioned for two hours.

Speaking after her ordeal, Silaitoga said she was threatened by police on the instructions of the Divisional Crime Officer (DCO) Northern Inspector, Luke Rawalai, to give her statement or be kept in custody until a company lawyer showed up.

"The investigating officer made a phone call to the DCO in my presence," said Silaitoga. "After that he told me that DCO had said he didn't know any Netani Rika ["Fiji Times" editor-in-chief] and I must give my statement by midday or be locked up. I felt coerced and so asked to make a phone call. I called my boss who called the lawyers who, in turn, called the investigating officer to set matters straight."

Silaitoga was released at midday.

Rika said it was appalling that the police had to resort to threatening his editorial staff members.

"We are willing to co-operate but nothing gives them the right to threaten my staff," said Rika. "We do not appreciate such threats or police going outside the constitutional process to get their work done."

Rika said the company would lodge a formal complaint with the Police Commissioner on 11 August.

"She had said she wouldn't make any statement without her lawyers and yet they persisted," Rika said. "I don't see anything seditious in the article. It was the case of one politician challenging another."

Police spokesperson Ema Mua said the police were investigating the article to determine if it was seditious. "We are still investigating and have tried to locate Mr. Singh, who will also be interviewed," she said.

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