New York, May 21, 2018–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Fiji authorities to drop sedition charges against the weekly Fiji Times, three newspaper executives, and an opinion columnist. A High Court judge tomorrow will make a final ruling in the case after a panel of three High Court assessors on May 18 found all parties in the case not guilty of the charges in a preliminary court ruling in keeping with Fiji judicial processes, according to The Associated Press.
The AP reported that each person– Hank Arts, the paper’s publisher, Anare Ravula, the editor, Fred Wesley, the editor-in-chief, and opinion columnist Josai Waqabaca–could face up to seven years in prison if convicted and the newspaper would face a large fine.
“The Fiji government should heed the opinion of three assessors who found Fiji Times and its employees not guilty of sedition, and immediately drop all charges,” said Steven Butler, CPJ Asia program coordinator from Washington D.C. “Taking the case further only suggests the true intent of the government is to harass an important independent source of news reporting.”
The case is related to an opinion piece Waqabaca wrote for the April 27, 2016, edition of a weekly indigenous-language newspaper, Nai Lalakai, which is published weekly by the Fiji Times, in which the columnist accused Muslims of historic crimes including invading foreign lands, rape, and murder, according to news reports.
The AP, citing court documents, reported that Waqabaca was charged with committing sedition by intentionally promoting “feelings of ill-will and hostility” between Muslims and non-Muslims in Fiji; Arts was charged with sedition for overseeing the column’s publication. Ravula and Wesley were both charged with aiding and abetting sedition, the agency reported.
The Ministry of iTaukei Affairs permanent secretary Naipote Katonitabua, who oversees affairs of the
Fiji’s indigenous iTaukei people, filed charges against the paper and its three employees two months after the opinion piece was published, according to the Fiji Times. Fiji has a history of ethnic tensions between the indigenous majority and minority groups, according to The AP.