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Fiji: Bloggers debate ‘harsh’ newspaper penalty

Bloggers throughout the Pacific have been reacting to a recent Fiji High Court verdict against a local newspaper for printing a letter to the editor in October critical of a ruling validating the December 2006 military coup that brought the current government to power.

The court ordered the Fiji Times to pay a nearly $55,000 fine and sentenced Netani Rika, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, to three months in jail, suspending the sentence for two years. Publisher Rex Gardner’s jail term has been discharged on the provision he enters into a bond without surety and remains on good behavior for 12 months. The newspaper, Fiji’s oldest, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and says it may appeal the ruling.

The case stems from an October letter to the editor the Fiji Times and Fiji Daily Post printed from a certain Vili Navukitu of Queensland, Australia complaining about a high court ruling legitimizing the actions of Fiji’s president when he dissolved Parliament, and the elected government of Laisenia Qarase, immediately following the December 2006 coup that brought into power Commodore Frank Bainamairama. The coup was undertaken, Bainamairama claims, to clean up what he saw as a corrupt and racially divisive government and reform the constitution, especially the electoral code that allocates seats in Parliament by race.

The letter pointed out that Bainamairama had undue influence on the jurors because he had recently removed the court’s chief justice. In an editorial after the letter was published, the Fiji Times admitted being in contempt of court because the letter attacked the institution of the judiciary and the newspaper offered to pay damages.

Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum applauded Thursday’s ruling, claiming it proves “normal journalistic standards, the media standards cannot be taken lightly” and reiterated the Fiji Times did not verify the identity of the letter writer.

Jacqueline Park, Asia-Pacific Director of the International Federation of Journalists, said she was “alarmed that the publication of a letter to the editor has resulted in such a heavy penalty against the newspaper and its editor.”

The case against the Fiji Daily Post will be heard in April.

After a Global Voices Online post on issues surrounding the court case I wrote in November, New Zealand journalist David Robie, writing in his media-related blog Cafe Pacific, took me to task for failing to declare the letter to the editor was “arguably in contempt” because according to the law, “contempt doesn't only apply to current court proceedings and the potential for impacting on a case, but also involves “scandalising” a court.”

Robie also pointed out, “news media in Fiji clearly need to lift their game over the professional editing of letters.”

In countries like New Zealand, news media routinely check the bone fides of letter writers and edit letters over matters such as good taste and potential defamation (and potential contempt). There are also frequent allegations of bias over editorial selection of letters. In fact, letters is the largest category for complaints over fairness and balance against newspapers.

Here is Robie's take on the most recent verdict:

The bad news is that the penalties are extraordinarily harsh for what many might regard as fairly mild criticism of the judiciary in Fiji (published on 22 October 2008 pending a judgment on the legality of the Bainimarama coup). But Justice Thomas Hickie regarded the comments as “scandalous”. These are indeed Orwellian times in the Pacific nation. The good news is that the punishment wasn't as bad as the military-backed regime had wanted – ie. a $1 million fine and actual imprisonment terms for the paper's editor-in-chief and acting publisher.

Later in the post, Robie quotes Professor Crosbie Walsh, who spent eight years in Fiji, mostly teaching development studies at the University of the South Pacific, on how media in New Zealand and Australia (and Fiji) need to provide more balanced coverage regarding the island nation.

NZ media coverage of the Fiji situation has been so unbalanced that most New Zealanders see no difference between the Fiji and Zimbabwe situations. A friend told me yesterday: “That Bainimarama. he's just another Mugabe.” Fiji media is more balanced but even then the ratio of negative to positive views is about 3:1. Today's court news from Fiji is sure to further demonstrate the need for a blog to offer some sort of balance.

(Walsh's new blog on how the media frame Fiji is called Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be.)

The bloggers at IG-Fiji supported the ruling because it won’t allow journalists to hide behind the shield of media freedom.

The conviction of the Netani Rika and Rex Gardner shows that the media needs to exercise control when publishing aricles. The acts of the Fiji Times clearly showed that there was a determination to defame the govt. using the open column (letters to the idiotic editor) as the medium. While touting media freedom, the Fiji Times blatantly published articles of extremely seditious manner and also failed to exercise due diligence. Rika, as editor had the full opportunity to prevent the letter from being published yet failed in his duty as a journalist to uphold the principles of his profession. Today's ruling has shown the world that journalists need to be held accountable for their statements, particularly those that provoke racial hatred or cause distress…

While the FT published an apology, it took two weeks to eventuate by which time the damage caused by the letter had done its work. In order to prevent the court case from even ocurring, the FT can be assumed to have published the apology without any genuine intent. The FT lawyer, Richard Naidu will perhaps finally understand that media freedom is not meant to be taken as face value. Just like each of us are governed by policies and rules at work (not the RFN and SV bloggers as they have no scruples about anything), the media need to realize that such policies apply even more to them because of the information they handle and disseminate publicly. In future, perhaps journalists will learn to publish the truth instead of the slanted version which is entwined with their own conclusions generally founded on rumors and lies.

In the forum Fiji Board Exiles, Alohabula1 contends this is a case of media partisanship:

Sadly the media has been very biased in the past and it will be nice to get a more balanced view of what is really going on here and not articles that should be editorials.

Fiji Girl wonders how justice can be served when the government self-appointed the judges to rule against the newspaper.

“Media Free” screamed The Fiji Times headline…
Oh!  Is it?  Is it really?  Well, if THAT is very important, how about the proverbial elephant in the room that you continue to ignore?  How about the fact that you, and your boss and his appointed judges, and the entire regime for which you work, all occupy your positions unlawfully?  Surely that “matter” deserves a far more prominent place in the public interest.

Intelligentsiya points out that the ruling proves the three arms of Fiji’s government are “on the same page leaving taxpayers without a voice.”

…the Executive was taken by force, the Legislature is long dead and gone, and the Judiciary is not perceived as impartial or independent.

How does this bode for independent media?

With the IIG now targetting yet again all outward communications, they have forgotten the simple fact that when the taxpaying public chooses to spend their disposable income and put their purchasing power towards trustworthy, objective views they are demonstrating the democratic right to choose who they want to hear from.

This simple act of democratic choice on a daily-weekly or monthly basis no judiciary or junta can ever overturn, overrule or deny.

  • http://url Che

    The ruling is not harsh as it was just a spank. What is harsh is our sensationalisation. It is the damage that some people are trying to create that is harsh.

  • http://intelligentsiya.blogspot.com Keep The Faith

    “a spank?”…maybe in your corner of the world but over here 100K is alot of money.

    let’s look at the damage that this interim illegal govt has caused this country and then have a further discussion.

  • http://www.huttcity.com/luveiviti Adi Samanunu

    E vica na ‘paisa’ e vaka qumia tiko o Voroqe B me vesuki ira tu kina na lewe ni vanua o Viti.

    Fiji & its people need to be liberated from this very oppressive ruler!!!

    God Bless Fiji.

  • Pingback: Global Voices Online » Fiji: Bloggers discuss newspaper publisher’s deportation

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