The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but it grants the government authority to restrict these rights for a broad array of reasons. These include preventing hate speech and insurrection; maintaining national security, public order, public safety, public morality, public health, and the orderly conduct of elections; protecting the reputation, privacy, dignity, and rights of other persons; and enforcing media standards and regulating the conduct of media organizations. Additionally the POAD gives the government power to detain persons on suspicion of “endangering public safety” and to “preserve the peace.” The Media Industry Development Decree prohibits “irresponsible reporting” and provides for government censorship of media.
Freedom of Expression: The crimes decree includes criticism of the government in its definition of the crime of sedition. This includes statements made in other countries by any person, who authorities may prosecute on their return to the country.
The POAD defines as terrorism any act designed to advance a political, religious, or ideological cause that could “reasonably be regarded” as intended to compel a government to do or refrain from doing any act or to intimidate the public or a section thereof. It also makes acts of religious vilification and attempts to sabotage or undermine the country’s economy offenses punishable by a maximum fine of 10,000 Fijian dollars (F$) ($4,870) or five years in prison.
The 2015 Flag Protection Act makes any use of the country’s flag to “demean, disrespect, or insult the State, the Government or any member of Government, or the general public” an offense punishable by a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of F$20,000 ($9,750). According to this law, “the onus of proof shall be on the Defendant to prove his or her innocence.”
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were somewhat active. Nonetheless, journalists practiced self-censorship on sensitive political or communal issues because of continued enforcement of a restrictive media decree and monitoring by the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA). Media observers and human rights activists expressed particular concern that the Fiji Times prosecution (see below) stifled free speech.
On December 11, the trial commenced (and was immediately delayed into 2018) for Fiji Times’ Editor-in-Chief Fred Wesley, General Manager Hank Arts, journalist Anare Ravula, and Josaia Waqabaca, author of a letter to the editor, on charges of sedition related to the April 2016 publication of Waqabaca’s letter in the Fiji Times’ indigenous-language newspaper, Nai Lalakai. In bringing the charges, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) initially alleged that by publishing the letter, the defendants incited communal antagonism against the country’s Muslim community; communal antagonism carries a potential penalty of 10 years in prison. On March 24, the ODPP changed the charge to sedition, with a maximum prison term of seven years. On March 30, police officers acting under instructions of the ODPP searched the Fiji Times office and removed employment contracts belonging to defendants Arts, Ravula, and Wesley.
Before the trial, the courts denied three applications for variation of bail conditions to allow Arts to travel out of the country on separate occasions in January, February, and October. The courts assessed that Arts, a dual Fiji and New Zealand citizen, was a flight risk. Nonetheless, the court granted a travel permit to Wesley to travel to Australia, with some restrictions, to attend a media workshop.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The media decree contains a provision authorizing the government to censor all news stories before broadcast or publication. Although the government ceased formal media censorship under the decree in 2012, journalists and media organizations continued to practice varying degrees of self-censorship due to the threat of prosecution for contempt of court or under provisions of the media decree and the POAD. Media published paid opinion articles by academics and commentators perceived as antigovernment.
Under the media decree, the directors and 90 percent of the shareholders of local media must be citizens of, and permanently resident in, the country. MIDA is responsible for enforcing these provisions and has the power to investigate journalists and media outlets for alleged violations of the decree, including powers of search and seizure of equipment. The decree established a media tribunal to decide complaints referred by the authority, with the power to impose maximum fines of F$25,000 ($12,200) for publishers and editors, and F$100,000 ($48,700) for media organizations. The tribunal, which consists of a single judge, is not bound by formal rules of evidence. The decree strips the judiciary of power to review the decree or any proceedings or findings of MIDA, the tribunal, or the information minister.
The code of ethics in the media decree requires that media publish balanced material. It obligates media to give any individual or organization an opportunity to reply to comments or materials for publication. Journalists reported that this requirement did not restrict reporting as much as in past years but said self-censorship continued to be a problem.
The television amendment decree requires television license holders to operate in conformance with the media decree’s code of ethics.
Libel/Slander Laws: The constitution includes the need to protect the reputation of persons as allowable limitations to freedom of expression including the press. The threat of prosecution for contempt of court or under provisions of the media decree and the POAD was sufficient incentive for media to continue to practice self-censorship.
National Security: The constitution includes national security as an allowable limitation to freedom of expression.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without legal authority. By decree all telephone and internet service users must register their personal details with telephone and internet providers, including name, birth date, home address, left thumbprint, and photographic identification. The decree imposes maximum fines of F$100,000 ($48,700) on providers who continued to provide services to unregistered users and a maximum of F$10,000 ($4,870) on users who did not update their registration information as required.
The internet was widely available and used in and around urban centers, but its availability and use were minimal or nonexistent outside urban areas. The International Telecommunication Commission estimated that more than 46 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The constitution provides for academic freedom, although contract regulations of the University of the South Pacific effectively restricted most university employees from running for or holding public office or holding an official position with any political party. Persons entering the country on tourist visas wishing to conduct research must notify and seek permission of the government.