Fears Nauru’s sweeping new contempt laws target opposition

Former Nauru justice minister Mathew Batsiua is one of 19 charged for protesting against government crackdowns on the opposition. Picture: AAP Image/THE GUARDIAN

YAREN – Nauru has enacted sweeping contempt-of-court laws that make almost any criticism of a case – including in media reporting – a crime, but create exemptions for members of the government.

The legislation came into force last month. Anyone accused of the crime would be refused a presumption of bail, alongside those accused of murder or treason, under separate laws that came into force on the same day.

Members of the so-called “Nauru 19”, who are facing jail for protesting against government crackdowns on opposition MPs, have expressed concern about the laws.

Separately, a Lowy Institute report has warned of Nauru’s “lurch towards authoritarianism”.

Under the Administration of Justice Act, it is now a crime to criticise any party to a case, which could include the government, as it is party to any criminal prosecution.

Also outlawed are:

*criticisms of any witnesses, judicial officers or legal representatives in a pending court matter

*publishing a judgment of the court

*“scandalising” a judge or judicial officer

*“scandalising” or undermining the authority of the courts or justice system “in any manner whatsoever”

An online offence applies if it is viewable in Nauru, regardless of where it was published.

Penalties are up to two years in jail and $20,000(US$15,309) fines for individuals, and up to $50,000(US$38,283) in fines for corporations. It has a 12-month statute of limitations.

Defences include comments made “in good faith”, or as part of fair and accurate court reporting, or in a legitimate complaint.

The government is exempt if it believes it’s in the public interest or for national security, and MPs are protected by parliamentary privilege.

“No servant or agent of the republic shall be convicted of contempt of court for the execution of his or her duties in good faith,” it also said.

There are concerns the new laws are targeted at the “Nauru 19”, who along with their legal representatives, have frequently criticised the case against them and the actions of the court.

Mathew Batsiua, a former justice minister and member of the 19, signalled their legal team would challenge the constitutionality of the laws in pre-trial motions.

“They are a chilling and extraordinary attack on the rule of law and democratic freedom, and undermine our right to a fair trial,” Batsiua said.

“Yet again we see this irresponsible government responding to developments in the case by passing new laws and undermining our legal system.”

In the long-running case, three of the defendants are currently appealing their increased jail sentences for a 2015 protest.

Nineteen people – including a former president – were charged over the protest against the government’s suspension of opposition MPs who criticised the expulsion of high-ranking members of the judiciary from the country.

John Jeremiah, Job Cecil and Josh Kepae had appealed increases of up to 700% to their sentences when the Nauruan government quietly severed a treaty with Australia that enshrined the status of Australia’s high court as its highest appeals court.

The creation of a local appellate court has been legislated, but it’s unclear whether it is operational.

A Lowy Institute report on the state of governance in the Pacific Islands region found Nauru had “lurched towards authoritarianism” in its recent moves towards political stability.

“After years of frequent changes of government and states of emergency, Nauru’s politics is characterised by an authoritarian approach to parliamentary oppositions, public demonstrations and freedom of speech”, said the report, which was published on Monday.

This year the Nauruan government also introduced laws that criminalise disrespect of the national flag, anthem or emblem. Under the laws, a person could face up to five years in jail for not stopping their car when driving through a public area when the national anthem is playing.

The Lowy Institute called for the Australian government to “do more to indicate its disapproval” of Nauru’s crackdown on opposition, media and the judiciary.

“As host of the Australian detention centre, the Nauru government has entrenched executive power in the knowledge that criticism from Canberra will be low-key at most,” the report said.

The Nauruan government has been contacted for comment.

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