Suspended jail sentence: Fiji Times Publisher and Editor Fred Wesley ( Photo:Cafe Pacific)

Scandalising the judicial system has come at a heavy price for the venerable Fiji Times, its former publisher, Brian O’Flaherty, and the current publisher and editor, Fred Wesley. Sentence was passed on the paper today after it was found guilty of contempt for republishing comments about Fiji’s judiciary made to the New Zealand media by Tai Nicholas, the Secretary of the Oceania Football Confederation. The comments appeared in the sports pages of the FT and the paper claimed, in mitigation, that they’d fallen through the usual editorial checks. That lapse has come at a huge cost.

The Fiji Times itself has been fined $300,000 and has to pay the amount in 28 days. Fred Wesley has been sentenced to a term of six months imprisonment suspended for two years. And O’Flaherty has been fined $10,000. The paper and two individuals concerned also have to pay $2,000 each in costs to the Attorney General’s Office as the applicant in the case.

This is the second time in five years that the Fiji Times has been convicted for contempt of court. In 2008, contempt proceedings were brought against the paper, the then editor-in-chief, Netani Rika, and the then publisher, Rex Gardener.  In that instance, the Fiji Times was fined $100,000, Rika received a three-month suspended prison term and Rika and Gardener were both required to enter into good behavior bonds.

In the interregnum, the ownership of the Fiji Times passed from Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited to Fiji’s Motibhai Group, led by the convicted felon, Mahendra “Mac” Patel. Patel has already served a 12-month jail term for abusing his office as Chairman of Post Fiji by organising the purchase of a clock through the Motibhai company, Prouds. A bench warrant has since been issued for Patel to answer further corruption charges but he maintains that he is unfit to travel to Fiji  because of continuing medical treatment in Sydney.

Is “Mac” Patel a fit and proper person to preside over the stewardship of Fiji’s oldest newspaper, founded in Levuka in 1869? How much longer can he stay away from Fiji and comply with the ownership provisions of the Media Decree? One thing is certain. The continuing drama at the Fiji Times still has a long way to go.