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"Fiji Times" fined, editor gets suspended jail term

(PFF/IFEX) - In a double whammy this week for Fiji's media, a regime decree warning media they will face jail sentences if they mention defunct political parties has been followed by a hefty High Court sentence against the country's biggest daily newspaper, the Fiji Times. A $300,000 FJD ($US 170,250) fine for the Fiji Times and six-month suspended jail sentence for its editor Fred Wesley formed the key part of a 19 February 2013 sentence following a contempt of court verdict in November 2011.

Regional media monitoring watchdog the Pacific Freedom Forum says the timing of the political parties decree and the heavy sentence will ensure more self-censorship and control over Fiji's media in the lead-up to the 2014 elections.

The Fiji Times has three weeks to pay the fine, its former publisher has been fined $10,000 FJD (US$5,675), and Wesley has two years to live with the fact he could go to jail at any time.

"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," says PFF co-Chair Titi Gabi of Papua New Guinea.

The Fiji Times was found guilty of contempt of court in November 2011, after reprinting an article published by New Zealand's Sunday Star where Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) general secretary Tai Nicholas had commented on legal issues involving a case against a Fiji football executive.

"You should be aware that with no judiciary there," he said, "it is not a court per se." Nicholas was a leading lawyer in the Cook Islands before taking on his FIFA [Fédération Internationale de Football Association] position.

Fiji's military appointed attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, claimed the comments scandalised the court and posed the risk of undermining public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the Fijian judiciary and the administration of justice in Fiji.

Nicholas was convicted in-absentia and fined $15,000 FJD ($US 8512.5) for contempt of court.

"The pressure for more media coverage of the election issues and platforms is a normal part of elections reporting for Pacific journalists," says Gabi. "We urge the regime to demonstrate its commitment to the free and fair component of democratic elections by allowing the media to be free in order to fairly do its job."

The Fiji Times already has a complaints procedure clearly printed in its daily newspaper and any citizen or group who wish to take up grievances over editorial and content can do so.

"The path back to democracy can be so much better if a free media is able to do its job and hear from candidates," says PFF co-Chair Monica Miller of American Samoa. "But the space for that debate has taken a big hit this week. If you worked knowing that reprinting an article your audience can read elsewhere, or the mention of now-banned past political parties in your journalism could potentially cost you and your colleagues their jobs and send you to jail -- that's an incredibly powerful pressure which the regime is well aware of. We can only call on the leadership to stop running Fiji's media via decree and puntive legal actions, and see them as partners towards getting Fiji back on the path to democracy."

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