In an important press freedom case in the Asia-Pacific, a judge in Fiji found four men not guilty of sedition. The defendants included the publisher of the Fiji Times, two editors and an opinion writer. We have details from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.
The charges stemmed from a letter printed in the Nai Lalakai edition of the newspaper, which is published in the indigenous language, i-Taukei. Josiah Waqabaca, an opinion writer at the Fiji Times, accused Muslims of historic crimes, including invasion, rape and murder, words that prosecutor Lee Burney described as “poisonous.” The government argued that the letter was designed to sow feelings of ill will towards minority Muslims in Fiji, and thus threaten lawful authority. Sedition, defined as incitement to rebellion, carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
On Tuesday, Justice Thushara Rajasinghe ruled that the prosecution failed to prove its case. There was no jury as such, but there was a panel of so called assessors – three citizens assigned to advise the judge. Their verdict was unanimous: not guilty.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both described the sedition case as an effort to intimidate the Fiji Times, which is the oldest newspaper in Fiji and the most prominent independent media outlet.
Josiah Waqabaca’s attorney, Aman Ravindra-Singh, described the verdict as a victory for freedom of speech and for the people of Fiji. Outside the court, publisher Hank Arts told reporters he was very relieved: “It’s going to take a little while to sink in,” he said.
In April, two opposition politicians were found guilty of sedition, and are serving sentences of two years and five months for spray painting anti-government graffiti.