Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 100,000
GNI/Capita: $1,410
Life Expectancy: 71
Religious Groups: Christian (Free Wesleyan Church claims over 30,000 adherents)
Ethnic Groups: Polynesian, European
Capital: Nuku'alofa


Tonga's government intensified efforts in 2003 to further restrict media freedoms, leading to the largest political demonstration in the country's history. The authorities also pressed for constitutional amendments that would increase the power of the country's king, who has ruled Tonga for nearly six decades.

Tonga, situated in the southwest Pacific, consists of 169 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited. The archipelago was unified as a kingdom under King George Tupou in 1845 and became a British protectorate in 1990. Tonga achieved independence in 1970 and is a member the Commonwealth. Tonga, which is a monarchy, has been under the rule of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV since 1945. The king appointed his son, Prince Lavaka ata 'Ulukalala, as prime minister in 2000.

Although few citizens want to end the monarchy, more people have called for democratic change, usually emphasizing the importance of greater government accountability. Elections in March 2002 showed strong support for pro-democracy candidates on the main island of Tongatapu. Pro-democracy candidates won seven of the nine directly elected seats reserved for commoners, up from five in a 1999 legislative poll. Shortly before the 2002 elections, Kotoa (Together), a royalist political group, emerged as a serious movement with support from Princess Pilolevu, the king's eldest daughter. Under such pressure, the government launched an economic and public sector reform program in June 2002.

In February 2003, the government banned the import of the New Zealand-based Tongan Times (Taimi O Tonga), declaring that the paper undermined the Tongan government. One article alleged that the king has $350 million in overseas bank accounts. The Supreme Court overturned the ban in June, calling it "an ill disguised attempt once again to restrict freedom of the press." The government defied the court injunction and confiscated all copies of the newspaper, while a second government order made it illegal to import, sell, or distribute the newspaper.

Subsequently, the government proposed a Media Operator's Bill to ban foreign ownership of media in Tonga; the Tongan Times is owned by Kalafi Moala, a Tongan who holds U.S. citizenship. After Moala won a court case against the ban, the authorities enacted a revised Media Operator's Bill in August that limits foreign ownership to 20 percent. A more restrictive Newspaper Act that followed soon afterward allows the government to shut down any newspaper regardless of its origin. These measures were opposed by some members of the ruling elite, including Prince Uluvalu Tu'ipelehake, a nephew of the king and chair of the Legislative Assembly. Popular opposition to the new media restrictions brought nearly 9,000 people, nearly a tenth of the entire population, to the streets in October for the largest demonstration ever in the island state.

During the year, the government also pushed for proposed constitutional amendments that would increase the king's powers. While the Supreme Court ruled against the government's claim that the king enjoys a royal prerogative above the law and the constitution, parliament – which is dominated by the king and nobles – proposed an amendment to the constitution to exclude laws passed by the Legislative Assembly and ordinances passed by the king from judicial review.

On another front, the U.S. government cited Tonga as a potential launch site for terrorist attacks. The U.S. government alleged involvement between al-Qaeda and Tongan shipping services, specifically in providing flags of convenience; the kingdom refuted these charges.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Tonga cannot change their government democratically. Politics in this former British colony are dominated by King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV – who has reigned since 1945 – thirty-three hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. The latter exert influence largely through control of substantial landholdings and their large numbers in parliament. The king appoints his cabinet without election and for life terms, and the cabinet takes up 12 of the 30 seats in the unicameral Legislative Assembly. Nine nobles elected by their peers and nine representatives elected by general election occupy the remaining seats. Cabinet members and nobles usually vote as a bloc. The king appoints the prime minister and presides over the privy council, which makes major policy decisions. Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, who was appointed prime minister in 2000, also heads five government ministries, including defense and foreign affairs.

Despite constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and the press, the government has a history of suppressing criticism of the monarchy and government. A government effort to ban the New Zealand-based Tongan Times in 2003 was followed by a confiscation of all copies of the newspaper. The government also adopted media legislation during the year that would further limit freedom of the press. In September, the Tongan Supreme Court dismissed a Crown suit against the Tongan Times for defamation against the minister of police.

Freedom of religion is generally respected in this predominantly Christian society. The Free Wesleyan Church has the most adherents. The state-run Radio Tonga requires that any on-air references to religion relate to mainstream Christian practices. There are no reports of government restrictions against academic freedom.

Freedom of assembly and association are generally respected for groups that avoid politics or criticizing government policies. Many civil society organizations are active in promoting education, public health, culture, and women's issues. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and strike, but regulations on union formation were never promulgated. The economy's substantial trade deficit is largely offset by remittances from citizens working overseas, foreign assistance, and tourism.

The judiciary is generally fair, efficient, and independent of the king and the executive branch. The king's privy council presides over cases relating to disputes over titles of nobility and estate boundaries.

Citizens enjoy freedom of travel, movement, and emigration. Immigration laws have tightened after the illegal sale of Tongan passports, particularly to citizens from China and Taiwan, became sore points in Tongan relations with its major assistance donors. Relations between native Tongans and Chinese immigrants have also worsened in recent years, as evidenced by attacks against Chinese-owned shops.

Women are frequent victims of discrimination and abuse. There are few legal protections for women, and the police and courts generally consider domestic abuse cases better handled by families or village elders.

Trend Arrow

Tonga received a downward trend arrow due to the adoption of new restrictive media laws and efforts to increase the king's already considerable powers.

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