Sedition charges brought against executives at Fiji's oldest newspaper are "absolutely outrageous", Amnesty International said Thursday, while accusing the government of trying to intimidate the media.
Three staff members at the Fiji Times -- occasionally a feisty critic of the regime -- are facing up to seven years in jail for publishing a letter to the editor last year containing inflammatory comments about Muslims.
"To charge people with sedition over something that's printed by an outside contributor in a newspaper is extremely heavy handed," Amnesty's New Zealand chief Grant Bayldon told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"Fiji has a really sad history of suppressing freedom of expression and we really have to wonder if the motivation here is to intimidate one of the few media outlets that is still independent in Fiji."
The letter in question was printed in a low-circulation Fijian-language supplement of the Times, which remains the Pacific nation's oldest newspaper established in 1869.
The executives -- editor-in-chief Fred Wesley, publisher Hank Arts and supplement editor Anare Ravula -- initially stood accused of inciting communal antagonism but the charges were upgraded to sedition last week.
Bayldon said the matter could have easily been dealt with by a media regulator rather than the courts and was likely to have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression in Fiji.
"Just because something's distasteful doesn't mean that it's criminal and doesn't mean that it's sedition," Bayldon said.
Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 military coup and ruled by decree until he won a general election in 2014.
Military censors in newsrooms were among the measures Bainimarama implemented before the country's return to democracy.
In 2010, his government tightened media ownership laws, forcing Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to sell the Fiji Times masthead.
"A lot of people were hopeful that the dark days of media censorship were over in Fiji," Bayldon said.
"The real risk here is that they're still with us, just in a different form."
The executives indicated they would fight the charges when the case came before the High Court in Suva this week.
The case was adjourned to May 9.