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Fiji 27 January 2009

Newspaper publisher’s expulsion called a “provocation” to Pacific Islands Forum

Reporters Without Borders urges the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum to react firmly to Fiji’s deportation of Fiji Times publisher Rex Gardner on 27 January, five days after he and the newspaper were fined 100,000 Fiji dollars (40,000 euros) for publishing a reader’s letter criticising a court decision.

Gardner is the third newspaper publisher with Australian nationality to be expelled by Fiji’s military-backed government in the past year. His predecessor at the Fiji Times, Evan Hannah, was expelled last May. Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter was expelled in February.

“Just as the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum are meeting to discuss how to promote democracy in Fiji, the government installed after the December 2006 coup has again moved against the privately owned press, in what seems to be a provocation,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We hope the Forum will step up its efforts to ensure that press freedom is re-established in Fiji.”

The press freedom organisation added: “We call on the government of Fiji to allow not only Gardner but also Hannah and Hunter to return to the country and go back to work. Their expulsions were an abuse of authority.”

Gardner was found in contempt of court by the high court on 22 January at the request of attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum for publishing a reader’s letter criticising a court decision that legitimised the government established after the military coup of 5 December 2006.

As well as being fined, Gardner and his editor, Netani Rika, were given suspended prison sentences and Gardner was also put on a 12-month good behaviour bond. The Suva-based newspaper had pleaded guilty.

It was yesterday that immigration officials notified Gardner that he was being expelled as an “illegal immigrant.” He was put on a flight to Sydney today. Immigration and defence minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau told the Fijilive website: “You cannot expect the state to sit around doing nothing. If we were overseas they would do the same thing.”

“No reason was given for my deportation and I probably won’t get one either because that’s the way they operate,” Gardner said on his arrival in Australia.

Another Fijian newspaper, the Daily Post, has also been charged with contempt of court. The first hearing is set for 3 April. Reporters Without Borders appeals to the judges to show clemency.

In an attempt to curb leaks to the press, the government adopted a “Misconduct in Public Office” law on 31 December making it an offence for civil servants to provide information to people outside the government.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the interim government’s prime minister since January 2007, originally promised elections in March 2009 but during a recent military parade in Suva he said legal changes would be necessary before any elections and that it would not matter if the elections were held in “five or ten years.”

Bainimarama is not attending today’s meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, which is meant to examine the situation in Fiji and, in particular, the lack of progress in restoring democracy.

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