Criminalisation of free speech creating chilling effect, as elections draws near

Elections are due in Fiji in late 2018, the second since Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama's FijiFirst government came to power in 2014, after eight years of ruling by decree.

The authorities have continued to use restrictive legislation to stifle the media and curtail the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, creating a chilling effect in the country, ahead of the elections.

Expression

Fiji Times acquitted in sedition case but state files appeal

On 22nd May 2018, four individuals from the Fiji Times newspaper, who had been charged with sedition were acquitted by the Fiji High Court, after the judge concurred with the 'not guilty' ruling of the court's three assessors.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, Fred Wesley (The Fiji Times Editor-in-Chief), Hank Arts (The Fiji Times publisher), Anare Ravula (editor of Nai Lalakai), and Josaia Waqabaca (Nai Lalakai opinion writer) were prosecuted over the publication of a letter in the Nai Lalakai newspaper in April 2016 which allegedly contained controversial views about Muslims, though it was not written by any staff of The Fiji Times. Human rights groups believe the charges were politically motivated.

The ruling was welcomed by human rights and media groups as a victory for free speech in Fiji. Many consider Fiji Times to be the last independent media outlet in the country, where free speech has been undermined ever since the military took power in 2006. Although elections were held in 2014, threats against media freedom have persisted. 

The NGO Coalition on Human Rights welcomed the decision in a statement, saying Section 17 of the Constitution guarantees the citizens of Fiji with freedom of speech, expression and publication. Nalini Singh, Chair of the NGO Coalition on Human Rights said:

"It is encouraging to see democracy and rule of law prevail in Fiji. The Coalition holds freedom of expression and speech dear to the realisation of human rights...we reiterate the importance to promote an enabling environment for our citizens and our media to prevent self-censorship and ensure people are being informed of current affairs and issues…it is pertinent to note that sedition is an impractical law in our modern society… and perhaps best removed from our legislation as it unnecessarily curtails freedom of speech and expression.”

However, the victory for media freedom seemed short-lived as the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) filed an appeal against the decision before the before the Court of Appeal on 24th May 2018.

Politicians jailed for sedition

In another sedition case, former leader of Fiji United Freedom Party, Jagath Karunaratne and former Opposition Member of Parliament, Mosese Bulitavu were handed down custodial sentences on 26th April 2018 by the Suva Magistrates’ Court.

As previously documented, both were convicted by the Suva Magistrates Court on 27th March 2018 for sedition. They were found to have spray painted anti-government slogans at different places between Nausori and Suva in 2011, charges which both have denied

Jagath Karunaratne was sentenced to two years, five months and 16 days imprisonment with a non-parole period of 18 months while Mosese Bulitavu was sentenced to two years, five months and 13 days imprisonment with a non-parole period of 18 months. Bulitavu and Karunaratne are appealing against their sentences and conviction.

Conviction for scandalising the judiciary

On 14th June 2018, Air Terminal Services (ATS) Employees Trust Chairman, Jay Dhir Singh was found guilty of scandalising the courts. He was charged for comments he allegedly made at the ATS strike on 19th January 2018, alleging that the judiciary is controlled by one minister.

The High Court Judge, sentenced him to three months imprisonment and ordered him to pay summarily assessed costs of 4,500 Fijian dollars (USD 2,132) to each applicant. The applicants were the Attorney General and the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji. Jay Dhir Singh is reportedly currently in Australia.

Investigation dropped into media workers

On 19th June 2018 that Fiji’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde, (DPP) stated that the authorities would not lay charges against Island Business journalists, Nanise Volau, Samisoni Pareti and Netani Rika.

As previously documented, on 11th February 2018, the trio had been questioned by the police under Section 15 of the Public Order Act in February 2018, over an online article published in relation to the ATS workers. According to Islands Business, the media workers were tipped off about the termination of the magistrate who had presided over the ATS dispute and who had ruled in favour of the workers.

The NGO Coalition on Human Rights had previously raised concerns about this case, particularly the ambiguity of the media laws and the interpretations that led to the journalists being interrogated by police. They said:

“The harassment and interrogation of journalists, particularly by police, will only foster a climate of fear and intimidation for the press…there should be a substantive review of the media laws including the Media Development Industry Act. The NGOCHR believes that public order and national security can be upheld and protected without undermining the principles of press freedom.”
Online Safety Law

On 16th May 2018, the Fijian Parliament passed into law the Online Safety Bill, following an intense debate where some members of parliament expressed concerns that the bill would curtail freedom of expression. Fiji’s Attorney General said the bill sought to “deter harmful online behaviour and the creation of specific offences such as the intentional posting of harmful electronic communications, as well as intimate images or visual recordings without consent”.

Civil society organisations had raised strong concerns about the bill including “the lack of guiding principles in the Bill to define and determine the scope of powers and discretion of the Commission when receiving, assessing and investigating complaints”.

The opposition had also raised concerns, calling more time for consultations as the Bill was “unclear and murky”. Opposition Party National Federation Party (NFP) Vice President, Seini Nabou said that “the bill does not define responsible online behaviour and as Fiji heads to the polls this year, it is absolutely justified for any political party to be anxious that the chilling of free speech online is at risk.”

Transgender women killed in suspected hate crime

Akuila Salavuki’s body was found on the Suva shore in May 2018. She had died from massive head injuries after a blunt force trauma. 23-year-old Salavuki had recently come to identify herself as a transgender woman.

Sulique Waqa, creative director of the transgender rights group Haus of Khameleon, said she had no doubt Salavuki was murdered because “her gender identity did not conform to Fiji's conservative, predominantly Christian, social norms".

Local media reports did not acknowledge that Salavuki was transgender or that her murder was a suspected hate crime. It is the second suspected hate crime murder since September 2017 when a gay student was found dead north of the city.

Sulique Waqa said “people in the LGBTI community felt police were not taking the cases seriously and no one had confidence that those responsible would be brought to justice.” She added:

"There is a lack of trust with the Fiji Police Force due to fear of discrimination, harassment and violence which really discourages LGBT people from working in cooperation with law enforcement, particularly with cases of hate crime.”

In the last review of Fiji’s record at the Human Rights Council, the state was urged to “take concrete measures to end discrimination and counter stigmatisation of marginalised groups, including minorities and LGBTI persons”.

Association

USP staff union files strike mandate

On 13th July 2018, the University of the South Pacific (USP) Staff Union reportedly filed a strike mandate with the Ministry of Employment Opportunities, Productivity and Industrial Relations, which gives the union the authorisation to enact strike action. The strike mandate was filed due to three issues: the lack of salary increases, and job evaluations and the removal of the assistant Accountant Payroll Officer.

USP Staff Union general secretary Litiana Waqalevu said they had been raising those concerns for years, but claims nothing was being done about it. According to her, it had been 24 years since the last full job evaluation took place

She said that questions on these issues have been sent to USP vice chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra and government Minister for Employment Opportunities, Productivity and Industrial Relations Jone Usamate, with no response to date.