MELBOURNE, Australia — It was an error that could have happened to anyone, especially two years into a pandemic: In a court document, a judge in Fiji twice wrote “injection” when he meant “injunction.”
And so, in a gently mocking Facebook post back in February, Richard Naidu, one of the most senior lawyers in the Pacific nation, pointed out the mistake, concluding with a “thinking face” emoji. He now faces up to six months in prison.
With Fiji facing a pivotal election on Dec. 14, the case is the latest example of government criticism being met with the strong arm of the law, over seemingly trivial issues.
Outside of the region, Fiji is perceived as a Pacific haven: the palm-fringed paradise emblazoned on high-end bottled water, with golden beaches and endless azure waters. Yet to its smaller neighbors, it is a powerhouse to be reckoned with — and one that often portends their own shifts toward or away from human rights and democratic freedoms.
Fiji is one of the largest Pacific island nations, with a population of around a million people, a powerful military and a G.D.P. many multiples those of Samoa, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. But its image of picture-perfect vistas and dreamy vacation homes belies a turbulent electoral history and what analysts describe as a growing disregard for civil liberties, which have together elevated tensions ahead of a critical election next month that many fear may devolve into unrest.
Peaceful transitions of power have not always come easily to Fiji, which has experienced four coups d’état since 1987, and which is often described as a “conditional democracy.” Its Pacific neighbors have also struggled to reconcile traditional power structures with respecting the voice of the people.
This year’s election comes as divisions deepen between those Pacific nations that have allied with China and those that retain close ties to Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Fiji’s relationship to China has been evolving. After an initial burst of investment from Beijing after Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, 68, took power in a coup in 2006, Fiji’s government has become more selective in its partnerships with the Chinese government and Chinese companies. But it’s not clear how Beijing would respond to a change in government, or unrest after a disputed result.
“An unstable Fiji is bad for the region, because it creates an opportunity for China to exert its influence,” said Dominic O’Sullivan, a professor of political science at Charles Sturt University in Australia. He added: “It makes it difficult for Australia and New Zealand to remain on friendly terms, because they’ll — at least to some degree — try to defend democracy.”
Fiji, a British colony from 1874 until its independence in 1970, was once seen as a standard-bearer for human rights in the Pacific. But over the past two decades or so, protections around civil liberties and freedom of speech have gradually eroded. Rights advocates now warn that the judiciary is far from independent, and that freedom of the press is at a worrying low.
“If you criticize government, the implicit message out there is, you could still get prosecuted under several different laws,” said Kate Schuetze, a researcher on the Pacific for Amnesty International.
In 2014, eight years after he came to power, Mr. Bainimarama reintroduced democratic elections, which he and his party, FijiFirst, won with around 60 percent of the vote. Four years later, in 2018, the party barely achieved an absolute majority. This year, as Fiji contends with rising inflation as well as the shock of the pandemic to its tourism industry, coffers and health system, polling suggests his victory is far from assured.
So clear is the call for a fresh face that even the incumbent government is running on a platform of reform, with the slogan “We are the change.”
The ruling party’s increasingly repressive moves to retain power and its gradual constriction of liberties have together created an environment where speaking out against the government comes with significant risks, sometimes months down the line.
For Mr. Naidu, a partner at a leading law firm, there was no immediate official response to his Facebook post, which garnered a few dozen likes and featured a screen shot of examples of the injunction/injection error in two consecutive instances, along with the comment “Maybe our judges need to be shielded from all this vaccination campaigning.”
As the months passed, Mr. Naidu appeared at rallies for the opposition, fueling speculation that he planned to run for office himself. In July, around five months after publishing his post, he was suddenly charged with contempt of court, after Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the country’s powerful attorney general and a government cabinet minister, said the post aimed to “ridicule the presiding judicial officer and the Fijian judiciary as a whole.”
Mr. Naidu was found guilty of contempt of court on Wednesday. His sentencing will be in January, when he faces the prospect of a heavy fine, or three to six months in prison. He declined to comment.
Other opposition figures have experienced similar clampdowns. Biman Prasad, the leader of an opposition party, was charged last month with two counts of “insulting the modesty” of a person after he greeted the wife of a former political colleague with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. (The charges were subsequently dropped.)
The use of the courts to restrict criticism has become more common in Fiji, which passed legislation making it easier to prosecute people for what they post online.
“We’re seeing that spread across many countries in the Pacific,” said Josef Benedict, a researcher covering the Asia Pacific region for the civic-action nonprofit Civicus.
The United States and other democracies in the region, especially New Zealand and Australia, have been reluctant to criticize the assaults on freedoms in Fiji, for fear of pushing the country toward China.
Now, with three weeks to the election, many analysts fear a disputed result that could lead the military to intervene either for Mr. Bainamarama or his main opponent, Sitiveni Rabuka, 74, who led Fiji’s first coup in 1987.
“The challenge is going to be, in terms of ensuring political stability and peace and security for individuals, in making sure that the military’s role is clearly defined, and that it doesn’t have a role in terms of interfering, overturning, or having a say in the government’s politics of the day,” said Ms. Schuetze, of Amnesty International. “That’s going to be the biggest test of this election.”