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Editor faces contempt charges; IFJ urges wide consultation on new media law

(IFJ/IFEX) - The following is an IFJ media release:

IFJ Urges Wide Consultation On Fiji's Media Law

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has serious reservations about efforts by Fiji's military government to draft and implement a new media law as the government continues to try to muzzle independent media reporting in the Pacific Island state.

As Fiji's Department of Information and the Attorney General's Office announced their draft of a new media law to be made public in December, the former editor and publisher of the Fiji Times faces trial on charges of alleged contempt brought by the interim government.

The charge refers to the publication of a letter to the editor that criticised a recent High Court ruling which upheld the legality of the dismissal of the elected government of Laisenia Qarase in a military coup led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama in 2006.

The interim government is demanding full details on the whereabouts of the author of the letter who currently resides in Brisbane, Australia, according to news reports.

Repeated efforts by Fiji's authorities to stifle the media and freedom of expression in Fiji have increased the IFJ's concerns about the lack of wide consultation with Fiji's media community regarding the proposed draft media law.

On October 9, the head of one of the departments drafting the new law, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, warned Fiji's media to be "careful of what they print, air or post". He said media houses could be held liable for contempt if they publish comments made by Qarase regarding his dissatisfaction with the High Court's ruling.

"The IFJ is deeply concerned that while Fiji's military government is spruiking its draft media law as a means to encourage media freedom and freedom of expression, an independent newspaper is being forced to defend contempt charges for publishing the opinion of a member of the public with which the government disagrees," IFJ Asia-Pacific said.

"A media law in Fiji can only be considered valid if it emerges independently from wide and free consultation with the media community," IFJ Asia-Pacific said.

Throughout 2008, the interim government has made a concerted effort to silence critical reporting. It deported Fiji Sun publisher and managing director Russell Hunter in February and Fiji Times publisher Evan Hannah in May. In August, a reporter for the Fiji Times, Serafina Silaitoga, was arrested and interrogated by police regarding an article in which questions were raised about interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, a former prime minister.

The IFJ yet again calls on Fiji's authorities to recognise that a strong and ethical media must be independent and able to report critically on all issues of importance to the public. Any new media law must reflect the views of all media stakeholders, including the Fiji Media Council.

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries worldwide

Updates alert on proposed new media legislation:

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