Activists are increasingly being targeted as freedom of expression is threatened in Fiji. In the latest instance, on 9 August, a High Court Judge sentenced human rights defender and head of the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF) Reverend Akuila Yabaki to a three months suspended sentence for “contempt of court.”
Reverend Yabaki was accused of reproducing the summary of an article in his organisation, CCF’s newsletter, Tutaka. The article originally published by the Law Society of England and Wales” noted that “there is no rule of law” in Fiji and the “independence of the judiciary cannot be relied upon.”
The judge indicated that Reverend Yabaki’s sentence was suspended on condition that he pays a FJD $ 2000 (approximately US $1000) fine within a month of the handing of the sentence. The court also demanded that he pays FJD $ 2500 (approximately US $ 1250) as costs to the Attorney General’s Office. In addition, CCF was also fined FJD $20000 (approximately US $10000) and asked to issue an apology which must be pre-approved by the courts and then published in CCF’s newsletter.
Earlier this year, in February 2013, Fiji Times newspaper was ordered to pay a fine of FJD $ 300 000 (approximately US $ 150000). Its editor-in-chief Fred Wesley was fined $2000 (approximately US $1000) received a suspended prison sentence for “contempt of court.” The paper had reprinted an article in its 7 November 2011 edition which allegedly questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Since the military coup in 2006 that brought the regime of Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama to power, civil society activists and journalists have been subjected to judicial harassment, persecution and intimidation for simply doing their job. Attacks on the media and civil society organisations have compelled journalists and activists to resort to self-censorship to avoid reprisals from the government. Civil society groups in the country are careful to speak out against government excesses and human rights violations for fear they will be targeted by the authorities.
The Public Order (Amendment) Decree adopted in 2012 provides police with widespread powers to prohibit and disperse public meetings while empowering them to use lethal force. In addition to giving police broad powers of arrest for perceived violations of public order and immunity from prosecution, the decree also imposes a number of prohibitions on freedom of expression including speech that may be perceived to “undermine or sabotage” the economy or financial integrity of Fiji.
CIVICUS urges the Fijian government and judiciary to respect their human rights obligations and uphold free speech. In particular, measures should be put in place to prevent unwarranted harassment of civil society members and the media. CIVICUS also urges Fijian authorities to annul the prison sentence and fines imposed on CCF.
In 2012, CIVICUS tracked threats to civil society in over 75 countries. For more information on the enabling environment for civil society, read CIVICUS’ State of Civil Society Report 2013.