The Fiji Times Editor-in-Chief Fred Wesley testified in the High Court in Suva yesterday that the April 27, 2016, edition of the Nai Lalakai, which contained the alleged seditious letter, was edited by Anare Ravula.
Wesley gave evidence before Justice Thushara Rajasinghe after the court ruled that the defence had a case to answer.
Wesley is charged alongside Nai Lalakai column writer Josaia Waqabaca, Nai Lalakai Editor Ravula, The Fiji Times publisher Hank Arts and the newspaper company Fiji Times Limited.
Ruling on No Case To Answer
The no case to answer applications submitted by all defence lawyers in The Fiji Times alleged sedition case was refused and dismissed by Justice Rajasinghe.
Justice Rajasinghe ruled that at the current stage of proceedings the court was not required to determine the weight, reliability, truthfulness and credibility of the evidence.
Justice Rajasinghe said the court was not required to determine whether the evidence adduced by the prosecution was capable of proving the elements of the offence.
He ruled that the only consideration was whether there were some relevant direct or circumstantial evidence that touched on the elements.
The court heard that the prosecution presented the evidence of the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs, Naipote Katonitabua, the investigation officer for the case, two court translators and copies of the employment contracts for Ravula, Wesley and Arts.
Justice Rajasinghe said at the current stage the court was not required to consider the nature of the employment contracts and determine whether the accused men had contractual duties as charged in the information.
He said the court was not required to determine the applicability, reliability and credibility of the documents in evidence at this stage.
First accused – Josaia Waqabaca
Before start of the defence case defence lawyer Aman Ravindra-Singh informed the court that Waqabaca had chosen to exercise his right to remain silent and would not be giving evidence or calling witnesses to give evidence on his behalf.
Second accused – Anare Ravula
The Editor of the Nai Lalakai newspaper also chose to exercise his constitutional right to remain silent during trial and not to give evidence.
Ravula is represented by private lawyer Devanesh Sharma.
Third accused – Fred Wesley
Wesley’s lawyer Marc Corlett informed Justice Rajasinghe that The Fiji Times Editor-in-Chief was going to give evidence under oath and also call a witness to give evidence.
Fourth accused – Hank Arts
Mr Corlett told the court that The Fiji Times Publisher would be in a position to confirm whether he would be giving evidence or not after Wesley gave evidence.
Fifth Accused – Fiji Times Limited
Counsel for the fifth accused Wylie Clarke indicated that the newspaper company would call two witnesses to give evidence on its behalf.
Mr Corlett’s opening address
While addressing the three assessors, Mr Corlett said Wesley did not receive the alleged seditious letter, did not see it at any time, had no knowledge about the letter before it was published and did not authorise it to be published.
Mr Corlett said his client did not do anything to cause the publication of the letter.
In fact, Mr Corlett said that the first time Wesley came to know about the publication of the letter was some weeks afterwards when he was interviewed by the Police and arrested and charged at the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters.
Mr Corlett posed the question as to how someone could be guilty of an offence if they had done nothing or knew nothing about it?
“Why is Mr Wesley here at all?” Mr Corlett asked during his opening address.
He said the Police did not conduct any investigation into who had received, who had put the draft in the newspaper and who authorised its publication.
Mr Corlett said all the Police did was arrest Ravula, Wesley and Arts and left the burden to the defence to prove who had published the alleged seditions letter.
Mr Corlett said the prosecution was of the view that Ravula produces the draft newspaper, shows it to Wesley who amends and approves it before it goes to Arts who has the last say.
“They assume that is how Fiji Times works,” Mr Corlett said.
He said there were four newspapers under the Fiji Times Limited umbrella, of which Wesley is the Editor of The Fiji Times newspaper, Ravula is the Editor of Nai Lalakai, Neelam Kumar is the Editor of Shanti Dut and Sailosi Batiratu is acting Editor of the Sunday Times.
“The way it works is that the responsibility, autonomy and authority about what goes in those newspapers rests solely on the editor of each newspaper,” he said.
He said editorial independence was practiced within Fiji Times Limited where the respective editors were free to decide the content of their newspapers without influence from the owners.
He said unless the Editor-in-Chief was approached by the editors to address issues pertaining to their respective newspapers then the Editor-in-Chief would have no knowledge about the respective publications.
Mr Corlett said Wesley was never advised that the alleged seditions letter was going to be published in the Nai Lalakai.
He said the case against Wesley was a simple and different one and the underlying assumption of the prosecution was wrong.
He said the content for the newspapers did not go from the Editor to the Publisher for approval, rather the decision was solely of the editors, which was a crucial part of editorial responsibility.
Wesley’s evidence in chief
The court heard in evidence that Wesley became a journalist in 1992 and has been the Editor-in-Chief of The Fiji Times since 2010.
Wesley said he joined Fiji Times Limited in 2005 under the leadership of former Editor Samisoni Kakaivalu, after holding several positions with the Fiji Daily Post and Fiji Sun.
From his understanding, he said, the publisher’s role was to set the direction for the company.
He said all the four newspapers received letters to the editor and the editor made the final decision on which letter is to be published.
Wesley said he personally did not receive the alleged seditions letter from Waqabaca and he neither saw it before it was published nor did he authorise it to be published.
Wesley testified that he had difficulty reading the iTaukei language, adding that he had neither read the Nai Lalakai nor had he ever been its editor.
He said as the Editor of The Fiji Times his duty and responsibilities include setting the direction of the newspaper and ensuring that guidelines are met as per the Media Industry Development Decree of 2010.
He said he ensured that stories were fair, accurate and balanced and he acted as a guide to the various heads of departments within The Fiji Times in terms of advice.
Wesley testified that he was the only person who handled the Letters to the Editor section daily for Fiji Times and he personally went through each letter to ensure that it conformed with The Fiji Times guidelines and the Media Decree.
He said once he received a letter he either dropped the letter completely if he had any doubts about it or he referred the letter to the company’s lawyers for their advice.
Upon receiving a feedback from the lawyers he then went through the letter again before approving it for publication.
When asked what sort of issues he encountered when dealing with the letter, he responded saying he has to consider defamation issues, legal issues, ethnicity issues,
religious issues, among others. He said the same procedure was followed by editors of the other newspapers and all editors had access to company lawyers for advice.
Speaking about his role as the Editor-in-Chief, Wesley confirmed that the editors of the other newspapers reported to him and he acted as a support mechanism for them for issues referred to him that may require his advice or direction.
In relation to the contents published in each newspaper, Wesley said he did not at any time involve himself in those matters unless issues were referred to him by the various editors, adding that this does not happen often.
He said the same was practiced by Arts, whose role was different and who had no role in the running of the editorial department due to editorial independence to prevent outside influence.
Wesley said the same went for the company directors, board members and owners and if there were to be any outside influence that it would make him very upset because it was not something that was taken lightly.
He stressed that the credibility and integrity of the paper required that there was no interference in the dissemination of information on a daily basis.
He said the various editors had the authority to run their newspaper as they saw fit and they were responsible enough to know what should be allowed to print.
The court heard that Wesley made an effort to meet the respective editors once a week and have a word with them before publication of their newspapers.
He said though he did not make any decision for the other publications, he was briefed as the Editor-in-Chief about its contents.
In his evidence Wesley said Ravula never referred any Nai Lalakai letter or article to him.
Cross examination by Mr Singh
Mr Singh asked Wesley if The Fiji Times was independent, to which he replied that it was and that included the other publications.
In his evidence Wesley confirmed that he did not receive any complaints about the letter.
Cross examination by Mr Sharma
In cross-examination Wesley told Mr Sharma that he was of Rotuman descent and was not literate in the iTaukei language.
He testified that Nai Lalakai was a separate publication that has its own people who sub-edited the copies and laid it out for publication.
Wesley said he had no knowledge about the letter, he did not know when the letter was received, who received it, how it was delivered, who checked it, typed it and authorised it for publication.
Cross examination by Mr Clarke
Mr Clarke asked Wesley to outline the values and principles of Fiji Times Limited as a company.
He responded saying Fiji Times stood for fairness, integrity and credibility and upheld the rights of people to voice their concerns about issues that were of interest to them.
He said he does not see the letters sent to Nai Lalakai unless they were brought to his attention.
He said the company conducted training for staff on legal issues, the Media Decree, and the Fiji Constitution, which were mandatory for them to attend.
Wesley also testified that all staff were issued with a style guide that set out the guidelines relevant to journalists’ line of work regarding the usage of words, spelling, references and other issues.
When questioned if he was aware about an email being sent by Mr Katonitabua to The Fiji Times or Nai Lalakai, Wesley said he could not remember if an email was received by them, adding that he would recall if they did.
Cross examination by Assistant DPP Lee Burney
Wesley agreed with Mr Burney that he was the person responsible for supervising the other editors within Fiji Times Limited.
He said Ravula was a sports journalist before joining Nai Lalakai.
Referring to the Media Code of Ethics and Practice, Mr Burney questioned Wesley for his professional judgment as an Editor-in Chief and asked if the letter complied with the code.
Wesley said had the letter been referred to him he would have referred it to their lawyers.
Mr Burney asked Wesley if Ravula had referred the letter to their lawyers, to which he said he was unaware. He also stated that he never inquired about the same from Ravula and in hindsight he said he should have.
He was also questioned about the role of the publisher, to which he said the publisher had no links to the editorial department.
Wesley said he considered letters to the editor particularly risky because of its legal implications, however he never informed Arts of the concerns and stated that he was not sure whether Arts was aware of the risks or not.
Mr Burney asked him if he was aware of any issues within the alleged seditious letter which would have prompted him to refer the letter to their lawyers.
Wesley said he would have forwarded any content that dealt with ethnicity and religion.
Mr Burney put to Wesley that he knew about the letter earlier than stated because he was briefed about the contents of the newspaper.
He said the briefings were centred on the contents of the front page, pages two and three and the back page.
He said since the other publications were printed on a weekly basis, the respective editors had ample time to go through what was needed to be looked at and refer issues to the lawyers without his supervision.
Further, Mr Burney asked him that as publisher if Arts wanted to know what was published under his name he would have easily procured a translation of the publication.
Wesley said Arts could do so if he had a reason to.
He testified that he worked closely with Arts and maintained a good working relationship with him and he would meet with Arts on a monthly basis during management meetings.
However, if issues arose during the week then he would request a meeting with Arts.
Trial continues in the High Court today. All accused men are on bail.