FIJI SUN FINED F$ 3,000 FOR CONTEMPT OF COURT

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SUVA, Fiji Islands (October 20, 1999 – Pacific Media Watch/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---The Fiji Sun, a new daily newspaper launched less than two months ago, has been fined F$ 3,000 (US$ 1,525) for contempt of court in a case described by a judge as the worst he had encountered in 22 years in law.

The newspaper's publisher, Tony Singh, and editor-in-chief Connie Chew were summoned to appear in the High Court to face the charge and a rival newspaper, Fiji's Daily Post, has published an editorial questioning Fiji news media's coverage of trials.

The Fiji Sun published a front-page apology and retraction in its October 20, 1999 edition for a news story published with a photograph the previous day about the case of a Suva-based Australian businessman, Mark Lawrence Mutch, currently appearing in court on charges of indecent assault and rape.

According to the Fiji Sun's apology: "[This newspaper] greatly regrets that factual errors which were unintentional have occurred in that article in the newspaper and sincerely apologizes for these errors. Mr. Mutch has been charged with eight counts and not 34 counts of rape and indecent assault in the trial in respect of which charges are currently continuing before Mr. Justice Pathik.

"There are no other pending cases before the courts against Mr. Mutch and he is not due to appear in court next month as stated in the article."

However, the Fiji Sun's report did not mention the judgment for contempt against it, or the fine.

According to the Daily Post on October 20, Justice Dharmendra Pathik described the reporting by the Fiji Sun as "false and misleading."

"It's not the fact that the case was reported that warranted a summons but what was reported was false.

"The witnesses are also not testifying in camera as reported in the Fiji Sun," Justice Pathik said.

According to the Fiji Times, Justice Pathik said: "I have never had an article full of untruth so damaging to all parties concerned. In all my 22 years in law, this is the worst kind [of contempt] I've come across in Fiji on the part of a newspaper."

In an editorial headlined "The right of the accused," the Daily Post commented: "The conviction [for contempt] yesterday of Fiji Sun editor Connie Chew and publisher Tony Singh should not be misconstrued as an abuse of freedom of information and freedom of the press. Instead, it should act as a reminder to all journalists and broadcasters of their important role as fair reporters of court proceedings."

The newspaper said it raised the issue of the rights of journalists and broadcasters in court and the right to privacy and fairness to accused people.

"In the past, the press respected the right of accused people to remain innocent until proved guilty and their right to privacy. And because of that accused people were never photographed.

"But the advent of television in Fiji changed all that. Now we see accused people being photographed as they are led into the courthouse, sometimes even before a plea has been taken.

"Television takes it one step further with pictures of accused people inside the courtroom.

"Why this has been allowed to happen, we don't know. But it equates Fiji with countries like the United States where accused people are tried first by the media before they face a judge in court.

"It makes a mockery of the legal system and puts accused people at a disadvantage from the start."

The Daily Post appealed to readers to give their opinions on the role of the news media covering court cases.

* In recent months, Fiji Islands Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has publicly attacked the Fiji news media for alleged low professional standards and lack of training.

Title -- 2406 FIJI: Fiji Sun fined $3000 for contempt of court Date -- 20 October 1999 Byline – None Origin -- Pacific Media Watch Source -- PMW/FS/FT/DP, 20/10/99 Copyright – PMW Status – Unabridged

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