The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned about the government’s use of restrictive new media laws to silence several publications in Tonga.
In 2003, your government passed two new regulations governing the media. The Newspaper Act requires all publications in Tonga to be licensed by the government. The Media Operators’ Act stipulates that foreigners may not own more than a 20 percent stake in media companies in the country. The deadline for license registration was set for January 31, 2004. Violation of the Newspaper Act is punishable by a $10,000 fine or imprisonment of up to a year.
Since January 31, the government has only granted licenses to a few publications, most of which are owned by the government or the church. All independent publications in Tonga, including Taimi ‘o Tonga and the quarterly news magazine Matangi Tonga, have been denied licenses. Kele’a, a newspaper owned by a pro-democracy member of Parliament, was also banned. Tongan journalists believe that the licenses were denied because of the publications’ independent reporting on political affairs in the country.
The Media Operators’ Act was largely seen as being a direct attempt to silence Taimi ‘o Tonga, which is published by Kalafi Moala, a U.S. citizen living in New Zealand. In response, Taimi ‘o Tonga editors applied to launch a new, fully Tongan-owned company, called Lali Media, that would publish and distribute Taimi ‘o Tonga. The company was approved by the Department of Labor and Commerce. However, the application to publish Taimi ‘o Tonga under Lali Media was denied by the Newspaper Registrar on February 4. According to sources at Taimi ‘o Tonga, officials notified the paper that the license was rejected “on the grounds that the past performance of the proposed editor has been evaluated and found to be incompetent.” Taimi ‘o Tonga also applied for a license to publish a new newspaper, Niuvakai. The license was denied for the same reason. Taimi ‘o Tonga has applied for a judicial review of the ban.
In February 2003, officials banned the importation of Taimi ‘o Tonga after the paper had reported on corruption allegations within the government and the royal family. After the Supreme Court overturned the ban, declaring it unconstitutional, the government proposed the Media Operators Act and the Newspaper Act, in an apparent effort to tighten official control over the media.
As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ condemns your government’s efforts to silence publications that report aggressively on political affairs and other issues of public concern. During the last year, your government has taken a series of steps aimed at closing Taimi ‘o Tonga and consolidating government control over the media, even after the court has declared such actions unconstitutional. Such excessive government interference has effectively silenced any independent voices in Tonga.
CPJ calls for the government to allow Taimi ‘o Tonga, Matangi Tonga, Kele’a, and other independent publications to publish freely and without interference. We also urge Your Majesty to ensure that the Newspaper Act and the Media Operators’ Act are not used as a pretext to crack down on the independent press in Tonga.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.