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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Tonga

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Tonga, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566f7c.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Tongan media won a great victory in 2004, when the Supreme Court in the capital, Nuku'alofa, reversed legislation aimed at stifling the nation's independent press. The decision brought the New Zealand-based, Tongan-language newspaper Taimi 'o Tonga (Times of Tonga), known for its independent coverage, back to the newsstands after an absence of several months.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has ruled Tonga since 1965 under a constitution that gives him a large measure of authority. Voters elect only nine of the 30 Parliament members, and the prime minister, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, is the king's son. In 2004, an economic crisis – triggered in part by the official court jester's squandering of a large fund entrusted to him by the king – led to the collapse of the state-owned Royal Tonga Airlines. The economic problems came just as repressive new media laws took effect, bringing an unfamiliar level of instability to the islands.

Authorities enacted the media laws in 2003 after a failed attempt to ban Taimi 'o Tonga, which had run a series of articles about government corruption. A constitutional amendment adopted in October 2003 enabled the government to pass restrictive press laws, such as the Media Operators Act and the Newspaper Act. Among other provisions, the laws restricted foreign ownership of media outlets to 20 percent – specifically affecting Taimi 'o Tonga Publisher Kalafi Moala, a native Tongan who is now a U.S. citizen.

As 2004 began, authorities required publications to apply for new licenses under the new rules. But well before the January 30 application deadline – on January 7 – police confiscated copies of Taimi 'o Tonga from stores. Then, for weeks, no newspapers or magazines were distributed in the country while authorities processed license applications. Punishment for publishing without a license included jail time and other costly penalties.

The government eventually denied licenses to Taimi 'o Tonga; to the independent news magazine Matangi Tonga, which is published by Vava'u Press; and to the pro-democracy newspaper Kele'a. (Officials later reversed course and granted licenses to Vava'u Press and Kele'a.)

The government's actions triggered a backlash. In February, pro-democracy activist Alan Taione was arrested in the Tonga airport for distributing copies of Taimi 'o Tonga. He and 172 other people signed a writ asking the Supreme Court to review the media legislation. Plaintiffs included media professionals, church leaders, and seven of the nine elected representatives in Parliament.

On October 8, Chief Justice Robin Webster declared the Media Operators Act and the Newspaper Act invalid and ruled that the 2003 constitutional amendment was inconsistent with other parts of the Tongan Constitution. While stating his regret at voiding legislation that had the approval of Parliament, the Cabinet, and the king, Webster defended his judgment with an aphorism attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Webster added that newspapers would still be subject to consequences if they printed anything, in his words, that was "improper, mischievous, or illegal." Within days, Taimi 'o Tonga was back on the stands.

Pesi Fonua, publisher of the news magazine Matangi Tonga, wrote an editorial for the magazine's online version welcoming the decision and lambasting "the desire of the government to control the expression of people's opinions." The print edition of Matangi Tonga was discontinued in the months after the media law was enacted and had not been relaunched by year's end.

In a letter to the editor, Crown Prince Tupouto'a expressed support for Fonua's viewpoint but urged the media to practice "balance" in their coverage of the government.

The Tongan media won a great victory in 2004, when the Supreme Court in the capital, Nuku'alofa, reversed legislation aimed at stifling the nation's independent press. The decision brought the New Zealand-based, Tongan-language newspaper Taimi 'o Tonga (Times of Tonga), known for its independent coverage, back to the newsstands after an absence of several months.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has ruled Tonga since 1965 under a constitution that gives him a large measure of authority. Voters elect only nine of the 30 Parliament members, and the prime minister, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, is the king's son. In 2004, an economic crisis – triggered in part by the official court jester's squandering of a large fund entrusted to him by the king – led to the collapse of the state-owned Royal Tonga Airlines. The economic problems came just as repressive new media laws took effect, bringing an unfamiliar level of instability to the islands.

Authorities enacted the media laws in 2003 after a failed attempt to ban Taimi 'o Tonga, which had run a series of articles about government corruption. A constitutional amendment adopted in October 2003 enabled the government to pass restrictive press laws, such as the Media Operators Act and the Newspaper Act. Among other provisions, the laws restricted foreign ownership of media outlets to 20 percent – specifically affecting Taimi 'o Tonga Publisher Kalafi Moala, a native Tongan who is now a U.S. citizen.

As 2004 began, authorities required publications to apply for new licenses under the new rules. But well before the January 30 application deadline – on January 7 – police confiscated copies of Taimi 'o Tonga from stores. Then, for weeks, no newspapers or magazines were distributed in the country while authorities processed license applications. Punishment for publishing without a license included jail time and other costly penalties.

The government eventually denied licenses to Taimi 'o Tonga; to the independent news magazine Matangi Tonga, which is published by Vava'u Press; and to the pro-democracy newspaper Kele'a. (Officials later reversed course and granted licenses to Vava'u Press and Kele'a.)

The government's actions triggered a backlash. In February, pro-democracy activist Alan Taione was arrested in the Tonga airport for distributing copies of Taimi 'o Tonga. He and 172 other people signed a writ asking the Supreme Court to review the media legislation. Plaintiffs included media professionals, church leaders, and seven of the nine elected representatives in Parliament.

On October 8, Chief Justice Robin Webster declared the Media Operators Act and the Newspaper Act invalid and ruled that the 2003 constitutional amendment was inconsistent with other parts of the Tongan Constitution. While stating his regret at voiding legislation that had the approval of Parliament, the Cabinet, and the king, Webster defended his judgment with an aphorism attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Webster added that newspapers would still be subject to consequences if they printed anything, in his words, that was "improper, mischievous, or illegal." Within days, Taimi 'o Tonga was back on the stands.

Pesi Fonua, publisher of the news magazine Matangi Tonga, wrote an editorial for the magazine's online version welcoming the decision and lambasting "the desire of the government to control the expression of people's opinions." The print edition of Matangi Tonga was discontinued in the months after the media law was enacted and had not been relaunched by year's end.

In a letter to the editor, Crown Prince Tupouto'a expressed support for Fonua's viewpoint but urged the media to practice "balance" in their coverage of the government.

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