12 Aug 2013

Amnesty criticises Fiji court ruling

5:26 pm on 12 August 2013

Amnesty International says the contempt of court conviction given to a prominent Fiji civil society group is chilling and a setback to freedom of expression in the country.

On Friday the Citizens' Constitutional Forum chief, the Reverend Akuila Yabaki, received a three-month suspended jail sentence following CCF's reprinting of an article raising concern about the impartiality of Fiji's judiciary.

The case was brought by Fiji's attorney general and also resulted in fine for Yabaki and his organisation.

Amnesty's Pacific researcher Kate Schuetze told Sally Round it also goes against the right to freedom of information.

KATE SCHUETZE: The people of Fiji have a right to know what other jurisdictions and other legal professional bodies are saying about what's happening in Fiji with the judiciary, and we also say that organisations and human rights defenders have a right to be the ones telling them what's happening.

SALLY ROUND: You're concerned that it's had a chilling effect on civil society organisations, this particular court case. Do you have any evidence of this?

KATE SCHUETZE: Well, essentially, it follows a pattern of what we see as attacks on freedom of expression and attacks on human rights defenders in Fiji. We're also concerned that Fiji is returning early next year to the universal periodic review before the UN. And on the last occasion a number of countries made comments very similar to what the CCF reported on. And why would organisations want to report on the same basis if they could face $20,000-plus fines from Fiji for saying that?

SALLY ROUND: But are you hearing anything on the ground that organisations like CCF are also just pulling back on what they're saying publicly?

KATE SCHUETZE: Well, they have been pulling back for some time and this is just a further incident which is going to create a climate of fear and people will be afraid of speaking out, therefore they will self-censor. I can't actually refer to specific organisations because it shows that those organisations aren't safe to speak out because they may face penalties themselves.

SALLY ROUND: Amnesty is opposed to the use of contempt of court powers for acts deemed to be scandalising the court. Can you explain the opposition to that?

KATE SCHUETZE: Essentially, if you read the general comment on freedom of expression as defined by the UN, it says that contempt of court can be used and tested against the public interest. However, it's got to actually relate to proceedings before that court and have a direct impact on justice. It shouldn't be used in any way to legitimately restrict freedom of expression, and this is what we're seeing here. If you want to compare to another jurisdiction, the UK hasn't used this type of contempt of court for over 70 years, and late last year their law reform commission actually recommended that that charge be abolished on the basis that freedom of expression should be protected. Unless you're attacking an individual judge, which may be a defamation case - those laws adequately deal with that - if you're commenting on a case that's before the court and it may impact on justice before that case, then that is a very different charge of contempt of court. We're not suggesting that that should change. But we're saying that contempt to scandalise the court does nothing to serve the interests of the judiciary and it can be used to restrict the legitimate expression of someone's views. In a sense what we're seeing here is why would someone one become a whistle-blower and speak out about concerns with the judiciary in Fiji if they're going to be slapped with hefty fines and possibly face imprisonment for that?