Court cases put Fiji freedom of speech under spotlight

Suva (Fiji) (AFP) –


Two opposition figures in Fiji were jailed Monday for spray-painting anti-government graffiti, while three executives at the country's oldest newspaper went on trial for sedition in a separate case, reports said.

The cases highlight ongoing concerns about freedom of expression in the Pacific nation, which experienced four coups between 1987 and 2006.

In the first case, former opposition MP Mosese Bulitavu and Jagath Karunaratne, leader of the Fiji United Freedom Party, were imprisoned for sedition, the Fiji Village news site reported.

It said they received non-parole periods of 18 months in the Suva Magistrates Court after being convicted of spraying slogans on government posters in 2011.

Prosecutors said the pair acted "with the seditious intention of bringing into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the government".

Lawyers for Bulitavu and Karunaratne have indicated they will appeal.

In the other case, the sedition trial of three staff members at the Fiji Times -- occasionally a feisty critic of the regime -- began in the High Court in the capital Suva.

The case against Times editor-in-chief Fred Wesley, publisher Hank Arts and supplement editor Anare Ravula stems from a letter to the editor published in 2016 containing inflammatory comments about Muslims.

The letter in question was printed in a low-circulation Fijian-language supplement of the Times, which was established in 1869 and remains the Pacific nation's oldest newspaper.

In a recent World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described the case against the newspaper as "spurious" while Amnesty has described it as "outrageous" and accused the government of trying to intimidate the media.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 military coup and ruled by decree until he won a general election in 2014.

Military censors in newsrooms were among the measures Bainimarama implemented before the country's return to democracy.

While RSF said conditions had improved, it said reporters still operate under "draconian" media regulations that can attract two-year prison terms if broken.