By Omar Waraich
Fiji ruler Frank Bainimarama is not fond of journalists. Three years after coming to power in a coup, he struck down the constitution and sent intelligence agents to pace down newsrooms, casting shadows over the shoulders of reporters to determine what could be printed the next morning and what would be swept away by the cleaners that night.
The Pacific island nation's journalists revolted. Declining to rewrite their articles to meet the editorial standards of the islands' touchy military rulers, they left spaces on the page blank, marking where their reporting was supposed to appear with a brief note explaining: "This story could not be published due to government restrictions."
Memorably, journalists at the Fiji Post mocked the restrictions by faithfully adhering to them. They decided to publish articles of daily banalities, written in the style of hard news. "In what is believed to be the first reported incident of its kind, a man got on a bus yesterday," a front-page article read. "It was easy," the unnamed man was quoted as saying. "I just lifted one leg up and then the other and I was on."
The Fiji Post is no longer in circulation, and there are fears that the same fate now awaits Fiji's only remaining independent newspaper, the Fiji Times. Founded in 1869, it outlasted its colonial-era roots and is braving the digital age - still selling thousands of copies each day, covering local politics, social issues from police torture to climate change, and, of course, rugby.
Last Friday, the Fiji Times' publisher, editors and a letter writer were all charged with "sedition"- a crime that carries a maximum punishment of seven years.
Fiji prosecutors first set their sights on the management of the newspaper group after a letter appeared last April, making inflammatory comments about Muslims.
The letter wasn't published in the Fiji Times, but its sister iTaukei language newspaper, Nai Lalakai. Like many newspapers around the world, the editors welcome the views of their readership, including controversial ones. By publishing a letter or an opinion piece, a newspaper does not lend its imprimatur to the writer's views.
The absurdity of the charges is underscored by the fact that two of the people accused, Kiwi-Fijian publisher Hank Arts and Fiji Times editor Fred Wesley, do not even read iTaukei. Their names, it seems, were added for other considerations. Ever since Bainimarama came to power, the Fiji Times has been a focus of his hostility.
In 2010, Bainimarama introduced a media decree that, along with other harsh measures, suddenly made it unlawful for foreign investors to control more than a 10 per cent stake in a Fiji media company. At the time, the Fiji Times was 90 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited, which was forced to sell the paper as doubts set in over its survival.
In an interview with ABC that year, Bainimarama made his feelings about the Fiji Times plain. "They've never acknowledged me as Prime Minister of this nation, even though I've been Prime Minister for four years," the coup-maker complained. "They are not doing the right thing by the people of this nation."
Bainimarama has long held unusual views on what is "the right thing" for journalists to do. At the height of his censorship regime, he said: "They can print whatever they want. But irresponsible journalism is not going to be tolerated." Or, to put it another way, you can criticise any Government you want - except the one in power.
The current charge of sedition was amended from a charge of "communal antagonism". With that case faltering, the prosecution has decided to change tact. Sedition laws are a crude tool, older than the Fiji Times, used during British rule to silence voices of dissent. It is ironic that Fiji's Government, which prides itself on a fierce sense of independence, remains beholden to archaic colonial traditions.
As Bainimarama has consolidated his rule in recent years, the space for independent-minded journalists has shrunk. The other major newspaper on the islands, the Fiji Sun, is a pro-Government tabloid, heavily underwritten by government advertising and partial to printing the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum's statements in full on its front page.
The Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, meanwhile, is run by his brother.
Journalists and Governments must speak out against this witch-hunt. If the Fiji Times' publisher and its editors are tragically hurled behind bars, it may not survive.
Ahead of next year's elections, Fiji would lose a key independent voice, and the world would lose one of its oldest newspapers.
Omar Waraich, a former 'Time Magazine' correspondent, covers the Asia-Pacific region.