Amnesty International has labelled the sedition charge against staff of The Fiji Times Limited as politically motivated and has called for Fijian authorities to rethink the accusation.
- Three Fiji Times staff members and a contributor have been charged with sedition
- Amnesty says if convicted they will consider them prisoners of conscience
- The Fiji Times has been a target of censorship under Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama
Prosecutors initially charged The Fiji Times Limited with "communal antagonism" in response to a letter published last year in the newspaper's Fijian language supplement, Nai Lakakai.
The letter, submitted by a reader, contained controversial views about Muslims and a number of inflammatory statements.
Times publisher Hank Arts, editor Fred Wesley, editor of Nai Lalakai Anare Ravula, and contributor Josaia Waqabaca had already appeared in court for the initial charge, before the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) changed the charge to sedition, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
The hearing for the charges was delayed until May in order to provide time to both the State and Defence counsel to file written submissions.
Amnesty's New Zealand director Grant Bayldon said the charges are "absolutely outrageous".
"To charge people with sedition for something that's printed by an outside contributor is extremely heavy handed," he said.
"Amnesty International's position is that if these people are convicted we will consider them prisoners of conscience."
Mr Bayldon said that "just because something is distasteful doesn't mean that printing it is criminal and doesn't mean it's sedition".
The Fijian Government insists that the ODPP operates outside of their control and therefore the charges are not related to their governance.
Mr Bayldon said "regardless of where the charges come from, journalists need to be able to do their work freely and without fear".
History of censorship
When Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama came to power in 2006 through a military coup, he established a regime of heavy media censorship.
Officials where appointed to newsrooms to ensure no stories that were critical of the government would be published.
The Fiji Times was one of the few news outlets to refuse publication of censored articles, instead choosing to publish blank pages.
In 2010, the Government introduced a legislation that imposed further restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
They also limited foreign ownership of Fijian media outlets to 10 per cent — a measure which appeared to single out The Fiji Times, then 90% owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited.
Amnesty's deputy director for South East Asia and the Pacific said the latest move by Fijian authorities is a "crude tactic to intimidate and silence one of the few independent media outlets left in the country".