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Fiji's online safety law threatens to muzzle free speech

An internet gaming shop in Nadi, Fiji, 11 May 2014
An internet gaming shop in Nadi, Fiji, 11 May 2014

Flickr/Michael Coghlan, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This statement was originally published on PFF's Facebook page on 9 January 2019.

Article 19 watchdog the Pacific Freedom Forum is concerned Fiji's new online safety laws will muzzle rather than protect Fiji's citizens.

The online safety bill was passed in 2018 by Fiji's Parliament and came into force on the first of January 2019, following a record timeline marking the introduction of the bill before it was passed in Parliament last year. The process and concerns over the intended impact of the legislation on public conversations raised questions for USP academic Jope Tarai, who penned a chapter on the online safety bill in the latest New Zealand-based Pacific Journalism Review.

"Any Pacific government working to make cyberspace safer for citizens, especially children, is to be commended," says PFF Chair Det Carreon Brooks, of Palau, "but an Online Safety Commissioner calling on citizens to say nothing if they can't say something nice is a red flag on free speech."

Honiara based PFF co-chair Ofani Eremae of the Solomon Islands is urging the new commissioner to more proactively tackle the task of clarifying what is criminal and what is merely unpopular or disagreeable.

"The government referenced some gross, clearly criminal intrusions on privacy and sexual shaming of women when it began pitching this bill early last year but the tone of recent quotes from Commissioner Dunn is only reinforcing worries over self-censorship," he says.

Under the Act, offenders will be fined up to 20,000 FJD and five year prison terms for individuals and up to 100,000 FJD for corporates, with up to seven year prison terms for office holders. The same penalties apply whether the offence is sharing unauthorised intimate video recordings, or an electronic communication causing 'harm'.

"More than half a million citizens are now affected by this law and they need to be reassured that their rights to share ideas and information won't be compromised even further," says PFF Polynesia co-Chair Monica Miller.

"If Fiji truly wants online safety for all, Commissioner Dunn needs to address the alarm bells raised by her recent comments, which only reinforce initial concerns that a law set up to protect is going to end up restricting how people think, then speak, about the things that matter," she says.

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