Fiji 4 await verdict in case that tests press freedoms

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — An opinion writer and three newspaper executives in Fiji are awaiting a judge's verdict Friday on sedition charges in a case that has major implications for press freedom in the South Pacific nation.

Each of the accused faces up to seven years in prison if convicted and the Fiji Times company, which has also been charged, could face a large fine. Many people consider the Fiji Times to be the last independent media voice in a country where many news outlets kowtow to the government.

It's not the first time the newspaper company has been the target of questionable charges. Five years ago, the Fiji Times was fined $170,000 and editor Fred Wesley was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence after the newspaper reprinted a story from New Zealand in which a soccer official questioned Fiji's judicial system.

The latest case, which comes during an election year, centers on an opinion piece written by Josaia Waqabaca, a former taxi driver and political activist. Waqabaca isn't employed by the newspaper and wasn't paid for his column, which he wrote for the Nai Lalakai, an indigenous-language newspaper that has a circulation of about 6,000 and is published once a week by the Fiji Times.

In his column, Waqabaca accused Muslims of historic crimes including invading foreign lands, rape and murder.

Two months after the column appeared, a senior government official complained to the police. Charging papers accuse Waqabaca of committing sedition by intentionally promoting "feelings of ill-will and hostility" between Muslims and non-Muslims in Fiji.

Hank Arts, the publisher of the Fiji Times, was also charged with sedition on the basis he oversaw the column's publication. Two others with oversight responsibilities were charged with aiding and abetting sedition: Anare Ravula, the editor of the weekly paper, and Wesley, the Fiji Times editor-in-chief.

The High Court earlier this month ordered the trial go ahead after dismissing an application by the men that they had no case to answer.

Fiji has a history of ethnic tension between the indigenous majority and the 37 percent of people whose ancestors came from India, typically as contract laborers brought over by the British in the 19th century.

A majority of indigenous Fijians identify as Christian, while those with Indian ancestry often identify as Hindu or Muslim. Overall, Muslims account for 6 percent of Fiji's population.

Responding to questions from The Associated Press about the government's perceived involvement in the case, government spokesman Halitesh Datt wrote: "Please note Fiji has an independent judiciary and all prosecution matters are determined by the independent director of public prosecutions."

Datt said the government wouldn't comment further while the case was ongoing. Arts also declined to comment ahead of the judge's verdicts.

Amnesty International last year said that while the column in the weekly paper was distasteful, it wasn't written by a Fiji Times staffer and wasn't endorsed by the newspaper company. The rights group said Fiji authorities were using a crude tactic to try to intimidate and silence the newspaper.

Jon Fraenkel, a professor of comparative politics at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington, said the case was part of a pattern of government interference.

"They've been attacking the press in Fiji for a long time," he said.

Fraenkel said it began after Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup. From 2009 until 2011, the regime installed censors at news outlets, including the Fiji Times, to control what was being printed and broadcast.

Bainimarama imposed his own constitution on the country in 2013. A year later, he held democratic elections and won, retaining power while also gaining international legitimacy.

In recent years, the government has stopped placing ads in the Fiji Times, while continuing to place them in the Fiji Sun, a rival newspaper that Fraenkel described as "effusive in its support" of the government.

Bainimarama plans to contest this year's election in the nation of 900,000, which is a popular tourist destination known for its idyllic beaches. Fraenkel said the government's sway over the press means that in the run up to the polls "dissenting voices don't get an airing."

New Zealand officials confirmed that they've been providing consular assistance to Arts, who is a national of both countries. The 69-year-old first moved to Fiji from New Zealand more than 25 years ago to help set up a television station.

Since being charged, Arts has been free but living under certain bail conditions. Last year, a judge denied an application from him to travel to New Zealand to attend his stepdaughter's wedding and undergo a medical review.

During the sedition trial, the lawyer for Arts and Wesley said the two executives knew nothing at all about the contentious column until the day they were arrested.

"A man cannot be guilty of a crime if he has not done anything wrong," lawyer Marc Corlett told the court, according to the Fiji Times.

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