Tonga’s small media sector suffered a major assault in 2003 from the monarchy of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. One of the country’s few independent news outlets, Taimi ‘o Tonga (Times of Tonga), was banned for much of the year, and in October the government passed an amendment that weakens constitutional guarantees of free speech.
Unlike most of its Pacific neighbors, the archipelago nation of Tonga was never colonized by a foreign nation. The current king has ruled since 1965. With the power to appoint heads of state and the Cabinet, the king has installed his son, Crown Prince Tupoutoa, as prime minister. Dissenting views are not easily tolerated, and journalists who expose official wrongdoing are routinely persecuted.
Tonga has only a handful of media outlets, most of which are government owned. The country’s few independent publications are routinely harassed for reporting on official scandals or abuses of power.
In 2003, ongoing persecution of the popular, independent, Tongan-language Taimi ‘o Tonga escalated when authorities banned the paper and declared it an illegal publication that had “ruthlessly campaigned for the overthrow” of the government. The paper’s editors told CPJ they believe that the crackdown stemmed from several recent articles that exposed corruption among government officials and the royal family. After the paper challenged the ban in court, Tonga’s chief justice declared the government’s action illegal.
In July, Parliament passed the Media Operator’s Bill, which limits foreign ownership of media organizations. This move was widely viewed as an effort to further silence Taimi ‘o Tonga, which is published from New Zealand by Kalafi Moala, a native Tongan who has U.S. citizenship.
In October, Parliament passed an amendment to Clause 7 of the Tongan Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. The amendment empowers the government to issue laws controlling speech and the media and limits the courts’ right to review royal ordinances. Some government officials have claimed that the proposals are aimed at curbing obscenity and nudity, which are not tolerated in the conservative Christian country. While local reporters have expressed concerns about rumor-mongering and sensationalism in the Tongan media, many agree that increasing government control is not the solution.
The proposals spurred a rare public protest, and about 10,000 people marched to government headquarters on October 6 to deliver a petition opposing the amendment. However, the government ignored the public’s anger. According to a report in Matangi Tonga magazine, when one citizen told officials that he thought the amendment was unnecessary and was intended to protect those in power, the solicitor general replied, “Well, the media are always targeting the people at the top!”