Updated 11.04 am: After intervention by the senior Fiji police, Newsroom’s three journalists have been released from custody. Reporter Melanie Reid says police chiefs decided after talking to the trio that they had no criminal intent. They had spent around 13 hours in detention at the main police station after trying to interview the developer behind controversial environmental damage on the island of Malolo.

Reid says police chiefs passed on an invitation to the Newsroom team to meet Fijian parliamentarians this afternoon. “We look forward to discussing the situation at Malolo Island with them. We have serious concerns about freedom of speech issues in Fiji so we will also raise this at our meetings with MPs.”

Updated 9.15 am: The three journalists are in a holding room, not individual cells, and are now waiting for officers from Fiji’s police headquarters to arrive to begin interviews about the alleged ‘criminal’ trespass. It is understood Freesoul claims the team walked past a sign in its office which said ‘authorised staff only’. 

Three Newsroom journalists were jailed by police in Suva, Fiji, last night after trying to interview a controversial Chinese resort developer accused of environmental desecration of an island in the tourist jewel of the Mamanucas.

Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings, investigations editor Melanie Reid and cameraman Hayden Aull are in a holding room at the Totogo police station after developer Freesoul Real Estate accused them of criminal trespass. While they have not been charged, they were locked up ahead of likely police interviews this morning.

The journalists had visited Freesoul’s Suva offices seeking an interview but been told to leave. Hours later, while they interviewed a lawyer acting for villagers of the damaged Malolo Island, Fijian police located their rental car and arrived and escorted them to the police station for questioning.

Newsroom’s Melanie Reid.

Before their phones were taken, Reid said she, Jennings and Aull had visited the Freesoul office to talk about the Malolo damage.

Reid said: “We walked into the Freesoul office in Suva with a camera and asked why they had been operating at Malolo with no permits. We asked to talk to Freesoul director Dickson Peng. We were told to leave and we did.”

Later, after Freesoul staff had been interviewed at the police station, officers told Reid, Jennings and Aull they would be held overnight.

“This is trumped up and ridiculous,” said Reid, a veteran current affairs journalist who was named reporter of the year at the national media awards last year. 

“I’ve worked all over the world and never been taken into custody for asking questions in a public office – questions, I might add, that desperately needed to be asked.”

Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings. 

The lawyer for the villagers, Ken Chambers, who was talking to the Newsroom team when police located them, said last night the journalists could be held for up to 48 hours before being charged.

“They walked into a public office and could be charged with criminal trespass. It is sort of like a sledgehammer to crack a nut to put them through a 48-hour holding pattern and use the letter of the law to give the Chinese some payback.”

Chambers said the Malolo Island issue “has been really a focus on how the Chinese are interfacing in Fiji”. 

A criminal lawyer had been engaged to represent Reid, Jennings and Aull and the New Zealand High Commission in Suva had been contacted for consular assistance.

Environmentalists and villagers had been aghast at the monumental Chinese hotel development which ripped out part of a reef, dumped waste, blocked other landowners and disturbed traditional fisheries – before gaining legal approvals.

Newsroom revealed the damage in an investigative report in February. A tourism expert warned the desecration on Malolo Island could become an international example of ‘what not to do’ in sustainable tourism development, alongside excessive impacts from resorts in places like the Philippines and Thailand.

Cameraman Hayden Aull.

In what is being described as a “gangbuster” approach, Freesoul Real Estate Development (Fiji) ignored two court orders to stop the destruction and is accused of running roughshod over Fijian environmental law, permits, the environment, and the island locals.

An elder from the nearby Solevu Village, Jonetani Nayate, told Newsroom in February he believed the Fiji government wasn’t stopping the Chinese developer because it was getting money from the firm.

After at least six months of inaction, Fiji suddenly decided to throw the book at the resort developer after the Newsroom report appeared on February 7.

The Fijian office of public prosecutions announced Freesoul would face charges carrying up to $750,000 in fines or 10 years’ jail for carving a channel out of Malolo Island’s reef, destroying fishing grounds, mangrove beds and damaging the foreshore.

The illegal channel dug through the reef at Malolo Island by developer Freesoul. Photo: Supplied

More charges were likely, it said, as development work had continued despite two court injunctions and other orders from authorities to stop the damage. Fiji police had been asked to monitor the site to prevent further construction work.

The office’s announcement came within a day of the Environment Minister Mahendra Reddy revealing his department had referred the resort damage to prosecutors back in September – and that it had been “investigating” the environmental breaches since June 2018.

Reddy’s revelation was in turn within hours of Newsroom‘s investigation being widely shared across Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, the Pacific and other international tropical resort nations which have relied on tourism development from China.

The scale of the destruction had been captured with photographs shot from a drone. Those images had been supplied to the environment ministry in August 2018 but no action had been taken until February – and, worse, the ministry had in December issued Freesoul a formal environmental approval for the on-land resort work.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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