FIJI: Minister files multi-million dollar lawsuit

Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry accuses 'Fiji Times' of defamation

By Eric Ku
AsiaMedia Staff Writer

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Fiji Times is prepared to meet interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in court and to defend the publication's tax evasion story, said Editor-in-Chief Netani Rika.

Last week Chaudhry's lawyer, Gyaneshwar Lala, said the finance minister's US$660 million defamation lawsuit against Fiji's leading newspaper was scheduled for the Fiji High Court.

Late Friday, reports said the lawsuit was filed against Rika, Fiji Times' senior reporter Robert Matau, publisher Evan Hannah, website moderators John and Jane Doe, parent company News Limited Australia, and two former Fiji Islands Revenue Customs Authority (FIRCA) officials, Lepani Rabo and Joseva Leano, who worked on Chaudhry's tax files while at FIRCA and who are suspected of leaking the documents to the press.

Chaudhry's suit concerns a Fiji Times report alleging the finance minister failed to declare taxes for more than FJ$220,000 (US$146,000) earned in Australia between 2000 and 2003. An independent inquiry ordered by Fiji's interim prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, cleared Chaudhry of wrongdoing on Tuesday, reporting the finance minister had not violated the Income Tax Act. According to an Associated Press report, Bainimarama's spokesperson said, "As far as this government is concerned, this matter has now ended," but the opposition doubted the investigation's legitimacy, citing lack of transparency. 

FIRCA chief executive officer Jitoko Tikolevu said it was not the media's responsibility to handle taxation affairs and that the Fiji Times' possession of the minister's tax records violated privacy laws.

Bainimarama, who is also Fiji's military commander, accused the media of undermining national security with critical coverage of the government, according to the International Herald Tribune.

However, Rika pointed out that "many of the things we report will not please those in power. That does not mean we are conspiring against the government."

He rejected the government's suspicion of a media conspiracy to weaken the military-backed government.

"We are the free press, doing our jobs as Commodore Frank Bainimarama promised he would let us do," Rika said.

Critics view the controversy as Prime Minister Bainimarama's latest attempt to intimidate the press.