Best of the Year
‘It’s Fiji: Anything can happen’
Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings, investigations editor Melanie Reid and freelance cameraman Hayden Aull were detained by Fijian police after they were accused of trespassing. Mark Jennings writes of an unexpected night in Suva.
Police stations, anywhere in the world, are not great places to be spending time, but Totogo, in downtown Suva, is one of the least pleasant.
It's old, dilapidated and has a menacing air.
We were there after an employee of Freesoul Real Estate, a Chinese-backed development company, laid a complaint against us.
Freesoul are developing the largest resort in Fiji, possibly the largest in the South Pacific, on Malolo Island in Fiji's Mamanucas group.
Newsroom has been investigating the environmental destruction caused by the developers and spent this week on Malolo.
The 350-bure development has upset local villagers and adjoining land owners by charging ahead without proper approvals, destroying part of the reef and impacting fishing grounds.
On Thursday we went to Suva to see if we could talk to Freesoul’s elusive director, Dickson Peng.
Peng wasn’t in the office and other Freesoul staff told us to leave, which we did.
A while later, when we were visiting the lawyer acting for the affected landowners, there was a knock on the door.
“We’re the police, come with us,” said a slightly rotund detective who introduced himself by his first name – Asaeli.
As we left lawyer Dr Ken Chambers' office, our accuser, who we recognised from the Freesoul office, was hanging around the police car.
Chambers told us: “I think you're in trouble; this is Fiji anything could happen. I will get you a criminal lawyer, good luck.”
The cells at Totogo police station are immediately visible when you drive into the complex.
A long row of them is directly in front of the carpark, the barred windows are high up but the fluorescent lights were on at 6pm. I think they are always on.
Our lawyer Gavin O’Driscoll, an expat Englishman arrives, and is initially confident. “Why have they got you here? They can’t hold you”. He is reminiscent of characters in the paperbacks I read as a schoolboy, except this is 2019....
When it becomes clear that they are holding us, O’Driscoll marches off to where our accusers (there are now two of them apparently) are being interviewed. “I will see what I can find out ”
He arrives back a short time later, worryingly, the confidence is gone.
“I’m afraid it is bad news ... they are going to hold you overnight; it could be two days. They won’t interview until the morning. I think this is very serious.”
O’Driscoll isn’t finished, there’s more.
“The cells here are very unpleasant, not nice at all.
“I was picked up for drink driving once and spent the night in them. It was a very rough night.”
Great, just what we needed to hear. So, what is your advice to us?
“I think you should just walk out of here ... [if you were to walk to] your car across the road and you could just go.”
We think about it, but our instincts or experience, I’m not sure which, tells us this would not be a good idea. If there is any chance of avoiding the cells, doing a runner would end it.
After what seems like two or three hours of waiting in a muggy room, two cops arrive, Asaeli, the slightly rotund one who brought us in and a tall thin man who says his name is Moeses.
O’Driscoll says a cherry goodbye and commits to checking in on us the next morning.
Hayden and I are taken upstairs to the office of the Criminal Investigation Division. Mel is bizarrely left at the bottom of the stairs. She sits there texting details of our situation to Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy back in New Zealand.
We get the idea that some of the police at the station don’t think we should be there.
There is muttering about orders from “higher up”. Asaeli and Moeses are good humoured and there is mention that maybe we won’t have to sleep in the cells. But there is also mention of CCTV footage from Freesoul and how the law in Fiji is different to at home.
In our heads we know the idea of being charged is ridiculous but doubt takes over as endless paperwork is produced.
We sign multiple times that we understand our rights.
There is talk of Super Rugby, of former Crusader Nemani Nadolo and Highlanders winger and All Black winger Waisake Naholo. This is interspersed with subtle questions about the story we are working on, it feels like a trick but I’m not sure.
Asaeli laughs a lot and often bangs his fist into his hand with frightening force.
Around 1am, Moeses asks us if we have eaten and we say no.
The next day, Winston Peters would claim we were taken out for dinner but it wasn’t quite like that.
The two detectives ask us if we have any money. Melanie has some so they offer to take us to the only place open in town – McDonalds.
We eat hamburgers and Melanie suggests we go for a drink; the cops laugh loudly and it feels like Stockholm Syndrome in reverse.
We arrive back at Totogo and the interviews resume until Asaeli says we should stop and continue in the morning …. Are we going to the cells? No, a decision is made that we can sleep on the floor in a small room upstairs.
Melanie is brought up from downstairs and told she can sleep in the same room and Moeses gives me his jacket for a pillow or a blanket.
We agree that Moeses and Asaeli are good guys who don’t want to make things difficult for us. We ask them why and Moeses replies, “we have families too.”
None of us sleep much of course and in the morning we are handed over to the tourism police. We are aware that our arrest is major news in New Zealand, and so are the Fijian Police.
I walk outside the room to go to the toilet and almost run into an immaculately dressed senior officer. He tells me he is the Police Commissioner and says he has just found out that we are being held.
He asks us why we walked past a sign at Freesoul that said ‘staff only past this point’ because this constituted trespassing. Melanie says she is short (she is 5ft 4) and didn’t notice the sign which was up high.
Everyone laughs and the commissioner throws in the fact that his wife, who is also short, is always telling him that “good things come in small packages”. Melanie pushes her luck and tells him that she has been detained, yet she hasn’t even stolen an apple. More laughter but then we are told to go back to the tourism police office.
The room is full of police, uniformed and plain clothes. We all wait, no one knows what will happen.
By now we have worked out that the power in Fiji resides with three people, the Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the Police Commissioner, who was a former brigadier in the army, and the Attorney General.
Five minutes pass and then the commissioner walks in. Everyone, including us, jumps to attention. “Sit down please”. The room is quiet. “I have decided to let you go as I don’t believe you intended to commit a crime.”
Everybody in the room seems genuinely pleased and shakes hands several times.
As we walk out, the commissioner tells us to go to our hotel and change because he is taking us to Parliament House. “The Prime Minister wants you to come and have morning tea with him. He is going to apologise to you for what happened here last night.”
The words of Ken Chambers come back to me in an instant: “It’s Fiji, anything can happen”.
We value fearless, independent journalism. We hope you do too.
Newsroom has repeatedly broken big, important national news stories and established a platform for quality journalism on issues ranging from climate change, sexual harassment and bullying through to science, foreign affairs, women’s sports and politics.
But we need your support to continue, whether it is great, small, ongoing or a one-off donation. If you believe in high quality journalism being available for all please click to become a Newsroom supporter.