Working in a legal minefield
26 March, 2023, 10:15 am
To avoid copping hefty fines and prison time under the Media Industry Development Act (MIDA), articles run by The Fiji Times had to go through legal checks.
This was shared by Fiji Times Pte Ltd general manager Christine Lyons while speaking at the Women Invigorating the Nation (WIN) Convention at the Grand Pacific Hotel yesterday.
Ms Lyons said since 2010, the local media landscape involved working with the Act, which had severe penalties for things like “not using a reporter’s byline”.
To get around the Act but still remain a credible and trusted newspaper, Ms Lyons shared the team relied heavily on legal assistance, which didn’t come cheap.
“As we speak, I think the Government is also reviewing the current Act and there’s been some consultations around that, so we’re also looking forward to what outcome that brings for us,” she said.
“But I would like to touch on Part IV of the Act, which is on content regulation. We have had to contend with Sections 22, 23 and 24 over the years.
“Section 23 reminds us that we must have a byline for any story that is over 50 words.
“Section 22 of the Act tells us that we cannot print or publish anything that is against the public interest or order, against national interest, or creates communal discord. The interesting question, though, is who determines what is of national interest or what is of public interest. There is no subsection to clarify this in the Act.
“Who decides there is a breach?” She said Section 24 outlined the penalties for a breach of Sections 22 and 23.
“And upon summary conviction, a company may be liable to a fine not exceeding $100,000, in the case of a publisher or editor, to a fine not exceeding $25,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both. Now let’s reflect on that, that there was always a possibility of our company copping messy fines just because we may have omitted a byline. So how did we overcome that? We had to run almost every story by our legal advisors and in the process, eroding the real spirit of journalism to some extent, and this came at a very heavy cost to the business in terms of legal fees. What that means is that a big chunk of our time as a business is making sure we comply at all times because all it takes is one error to get us in trouble with the law.
“Why the lawyers, you may ask? Because parts of the Act are vague and open to interpretation. Even with the legal advice, there’s still the added pressure of the unknown interpretations.
“It certainly has not been an easy task for us as an organisation to work under such laws, but we’ve had to contend with that since 2010 and deal with the possibility of being penalised under the Act.
“It has meant changes in the way we did our business, especially in the management and delivery of content.”