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Editor facing jail and a $542,000 fine

SUVA, Fiji (Fijilive, Dec. 4, 2008) - The High Court will rule next month whether or not to uphold a submission by the State to have Fiji’s leading newspaper fined FJ$1 million [US$542,000] and its bosses jailed for contempt of court.

After hearing the matter today, Justice Thomas Hickie said he would deliver his judgment on notice since he needs time to make an informed decision.

Solicitor General Christopher Pryde told the court that the sentence sought by the State is required to deter other media organizations from attacking the judiciary.

The State wants the Fiji Times Editor-in-Chief Netani Rika and Publisher Rex Gardner jailed for six months each over a letter-to-the-editor it published condemning the High Court’s validation of the 2006 coup.

Lawyer for the newspaper Richard Naidu argued that "it was not a deliberate attack on the judiciary and to impose a jail term just so to act as a deterrent would have an unnecessary effect on freedom of speech."

The Daily Post, which also published the same letter, has been given until next April to mitigate its case.

This morning’s proceedings began with Rika taking the stand. He admitted that the daily realized they were in contempt of court but quickly reacted by issuing an apology on the matter.

Pryde questioned Rika as to what policy was used when deciding on what letter was to be published.

"The policy is that it should be of 200 words or less, of good text and should not breach the laws of the country," said Rika.

"Are there any other policies?" asked Pryde.

"Yes, the address of the writer has to be verified but in this case this was not done as the letter was sent through the email," replied Rika.

"You processed (Eroni) Navukitu’s letter and when you came across the words corrupt and biased, no alarm bells were ringing?" asked Pryde. To this Rika answered, "no."

In mitigation, Naidu argued that since it began operation in 1896, the Fiji Times has been brought to court only once for being in contempt of court, which was 17 years ago.

He added that the publisher of the paper, Rex Gardner, had 40 years of experience in the media and had worked for media companies in the United Kingdom and Australia without fronting court.

Similarly for Rika, Naidu mentioned that he had 20 years experience in the field and was also appearing for the first time in court.

"We do agree that an error was made and to the fact the respondents have pleaded guilty to the matter. They apologized within a matter of days of publicizing the letter, suggesting they realized their error."

According to Naidu, the imposing of a jail term and FJ$1 million fine was unreasonable. He gave examples of old cases where people were fined only FJ$300 and FJ$500.

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