Fiji finds 4 not guilty of sedition in media freedom case

A judge in Fiji found an opinion writer and three newspaper executives not guilty of sedition on Tuesday in a ruling that many consider a victory for press freedom in the South Pacific nation.

Judge Thushara Rajasinghe ruled that prosecutors failed to prove an opinion piece had promoted feelings of ill will and hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims in Fiji. The piece ran in a small indigenous-language newspaper published by The Fiji Times.

The men were each facing up to seven years in prison if found guilty. The judge also found Fiji Times Limited not guilty.

Many people consider The Fiji Times to be the last independent media voice in a country where many news outlets kowtow to the government.

The newspaper's publisher, Hank Arts, who was among those charged, said he was relieved by the ruling.

"Winning this gives us all the courage to keep going," he said. "It's an election year and it's very important that we keep doing what we're doing, and do it well."

The case centered on an opinion piece written by Josaia Waqabaca, a former taxi driver and political activist. In his column, which ran in the Nai Lalakai newspaper, Waqabaca accused Muslims of historic crimes, including invading foreign lands, rape and murder.

Two months after the column appeared, a senior government official complained to the police.

Five years ago, The Fiji Times was fined $170,000 and its editor-in-chief, Fred Wesley, was given a suspended jail sentence after the newspaper reprinted a story in which a soccer official questioned Fiji's judicial system. Wesley was also charged in the latest case and said he was "very pleased" with the ruling.

"It actually ends two years of stress," he said.

Wesley said The Fiji Times always strives to be fair and balanced in its coverage and is neither for nor against the government. He said the ruling reinforced the newspaper's role in providing a platform for different people to voice their opinions.

The judge's ruling followed a preliminary finding Friday by three court assessors who also found the four not guilty.