WELLINGTON, New Zealand — An opinion writer and three newspaper executives in Fiji were found not guilty of sedition Friday in a preliminary court ruling, although a judge has yet to make a final decision in the case.
Three assessors also ruled the Fiji Times company was not guilty. Under the Fiji judicial system, the judge can chose to either follow or ignore the findings of the assessors. The judge adjourned the court on Friday, saying he planned to issue his verdict Tuesday.
The case has major implications for press freedom in the South Pacific nation. 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 case centers on an opinion piece written by Josaia Waqabaca, a former taxi driver and political activist. The column ran in the Nai Lalakai, a small, weekly indigenous-language newspaper published by the Fiji Times. In his column, 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. Charging papers accuse Waqabaca of committing sedition by intentionally promoting "feelings of ill-will and hostility" between Muslims and non-Muslims in Fiji.
Hank Arts, the publisher of the Fiji Times, was also charged with sedition on the basis he oversaw the column's publication. Two others with oversight responsibilities were charged with aiding and abetting sedition: Anare Ravula, the editor of the weekly paper, and Fred Wesley, the Fiji Times editor-in-chief.
Fiji has a history of ethnic tensions between the indigenous majority and the 37 percent of people whose ancestors came from India, typically as contract laborers brought over by the British in the 19th century.
Jon Fraenkel, a professor of comparative politics at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington, said the case was part of a pattern of government interference.
"They've been attacking the press in Fiji for a long time," he said.
Fraenkel said it began after Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup. From 2009 until 2011, the regime installed censors at news outlets, including the Fiji Times, to control what was being printed and broadcast.
Five years ago, the Fiji Times was fined $170,000 and editor Wesley was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence after the newspaper reprinted a story from New Zealand in which a soccer official questioned Fiji's judicial system.
Bainimarama imposed his own constitution on the country in 2013. A year later, he held democratic elections and won, retaining power while also gaining international legitimacy.
In recent years, the government has stopped placing ads in the Fiji Times, while continuing to place them in the Fiji Sun, a rival newspaper that Fraenkel described as "effusive in its support" of the government.
Bainimarama plans to contest elections in the nation of 900,000 later this year.