a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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; enforcing media standards; and regulating the conduct of media organizations. The POA also gives the government power to detain persons on suspicion of “endangering public safety” and to “preserve the peace.” The authorities continue to use the wide provisions in this law to restrict freedom of expression. The law on media prohibits “irresponsible reporting” and provides for government censorship of media.
Freedom of Expression: The law includes criticism of the government in its definition of the crime of sedition. This includes statements made in other countries by any person.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were somewhat active; however, journalists practiced self-censorship on sensitive political or communal topics because of restrictions in the law and monitoring by the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA). The opposition and other critics of the government accused the government of using state power to silence critics.
In July the appellate court reviewed an appeal brought by the prosecution in the case of three staff members of the Fiji Times, including the editor in chief, who were acquitted on sedition charges in May 2018; a decision on the appeal remains pending. Despite the journalists’ acquittal, media observers and human rights activists expressed concern the long investigation and trial had served to stifle free speech. The three staff were charged with sedition for the 2016 publication of a letter to the editor in the Fiji Times indigenous-language newspaper Nai Lalakai.
Violence and Harassment: On April 3, police detained three journalists from New Zealand’s Newsroom agency who were investigating allegations of environmental damage caused by a Chinese developer, Freesoul Real Estate, on Fiji’s Malolo Island. Police released the journalists 13 hours later, without charge. Prime Minister Bainimarama personally delivered a public apology for the officers’ actions, while Commissioner of Police Sitiveni Qiliho clarified in the media that the detention was “an isolated incident by a small group of rogue police officers.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The media law authorizes the government to censor all news stories before broadcast or publication. Although the government ceased prior censorship in 2012, the law remains on the books, and journalists and media organizations continued to practice varying degrees of self-censorship citing a fear of prosecution. Despite this, media published opinion articles by academics and commentators critical of the government.
By law, directors and 90 percent of shareholders in local media must be citizens and permanently reside in the country. MIDA is responsible for enforcing these provisions and has power to investigate media outlets for alleged violations, and the power to search facilities and seize equipment.
The code of ethics in the law requires that media publish balanced material. It obligates media to give any individual or organization an opportunity to reply to comments or provide materials for publication. Journalists reported this requirement did not restrict reporting as much as in past years.
The law on television requires television station operators to conform to the media law’s code of ethics.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander and defamation are treated as civil matters under the law. The constitution, however, includes protecting the reputation of persons as a permissible limitation to freedom of expression, including of the press. Some measure of this constitutional provision was enacted via the 2018 Online Safety Act. Authorities have used this act and the commission established in January under this act to restrict public discussion, establishing a de facto form of criminal libel with imprisonment penalties (see Internet Freedom, below).
Court decisions on two separate 2018 defamation lawsuits, the first brought by the prime minister and attorney general and the second by supervisor of elections, charging opposition critics with posting defamatory remarks on social media remained pending at year’s end.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content; however, there were some reports the government monitored private online communications without legal authority.
The purpose of the 2018 Online Safety Act, according to the government, is to protect minors from offensive online behavior, cybercrime, and cyber bullying. The law penalized offenders with a maximum fine of FJD 20,000 ($9,140) and a maximum five years’ imprisonment for posting an electronic communication that causes harm to a person. Critics, however, including rights groups and youth and women’s organizations, warned it was a potential “trojan horse” for internet censorship and punishment of online dissent. Critics’ fears worsened when, on January 2, the first commissioner for online safety publicly told media: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” After enacting the law, the government filed several defamation lawsuits against political opponents for posting comments critical of the government on social media.
In May the court sentenced former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry’s son, Rajendra Chaudhry, in absentia to 15 months’ imprisonment and a FJD 50,000 ($22,900) fine for contempt of court after he failed to appear for a civil defamation case brought against him by the attorney general, who claimed Chaudhry’s 2018 Facebook posts defamed the Fiji judicial system, chief justice and chief registrar, and undermined public confidence in the administration of justice in the country.
All telephone and internet users must register their personal details with telephone and internet providers, including name, birth date, home address, left thumbprint, and photographic identification. The law imposes a maximum fine of FJD 100,000 ($45,700) on providers who continued to provide services to unregistered users and a maximum fine of FJD 10,000 ($4,570) on users who did not update their registration information as required.
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 who enter the country on tourist visas to conduct research must notify and seek permission from the government.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; however, the government restricted these freedoms in some cases.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly but allows the government to limit this right in the interests of national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, and the orderly conduct of elections. The constitution also allows the government to limit freedom of assembly to protect the rights of others and imposes restrictions on public officials’ rights to freedom of assembly.
The POA allows authorities to use whatever force necessary to prohibit or disperse public and private meetings after “due warning,” in order to preserve public order.
Although event organizers said authorities were sometimes very slow to issue permits, they granted permits for public rallies in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community and the 16 Days of Activism against Domestic Violence Campaign. Authorities, however, denied permits for public-service unions and the political opposition to protest.
Executive members of the Fijian Teachers Association (FTA), an affiliate member of FTUC, claimed police harassed and threatened them with “further action” over plans to hold a march during an Asian Development Bank (ADB) summit to be hosted by Fiji from May 1-5, and also if they failed to turn up for meetings at the police office. The Ministry of Education also threatened teachers with further reprisals, including legal action, if they participated in a planned May 3 nationwide strike (see section 7, below).
On June 17, police detained the president of the Fiji National Farmers Union (NFU), Surendra Lal, for questioning regarding alleged incitement and threatening to disrupt the harvesting of sugar cane. After two days Lal was released without being charged. According to an NFU statement, the detention came when growers were protesting low cane payments, a low forecast price for sugar, and the imposition of cane-cartage weight restrictions for trucks, which the union claimed would significantly add to transport costs.
On October 8, police rejected a request from the opposition National Federation Party (NFP) for a permit to march in Suva on October 10, Fiji’s national day. The police claimed the party failed to fulfill filing requirements. The proposed march was to protest the delayed police investigation into an alleged assault on NFP President Pio Tikoduadua by Prime Minister Bainimarama on August 9 (see section 3, below).
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association but limits this right in the interests of national security, public order, and morality and also for the orderly conduct of elections. The government generally did not restrict membership in NGOs, professional associations, and other private organizations.
On May 2, police raided the FTUC’s headquarters without a warrant and confiscated documents, laptops, and other equipment belonging to the union.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
Under the POA, to enforce public order, the government may restrict freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: There were no reports the government restricted any person’s in-country movement during the year.
Exile: The government used re-entry bans as a de facto means of exiling critics. As in past years, opposition parties called on the government to lift re-entry bans on all existing and former citizens, including historian and former citizen Brij Lal, a critic of the government living in Australia. The Immigration Department has stated Lal could reapply for re-entry into the country; however, the ban reportedly remained in place as of November. Lal was deported from Fiji in 2009 by the interim government for activities “prejudicial to the peace, defense, and public security of the Government of Fiji.” Lal’s wife, Padma, also an academic, was stopped from re-entering the country in 2010.
e. Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance to officials to undertake refugee-status determination procedures.
g. Stateless Persons