Pacific Scoop

Ashika Commission of Inquiry to announce second member this week

Princess Ashika disaster ... under investigation. Photo: TNews

Princess Ashika disaster ... under investigation. Photo: TNews

By Josephine Latu of Pacific Media Watch

Tonga’s Royal Commission of Inquiry, charged with investigating why the Princess Ashika sank earlier this month, is expected to name its second member this week, according to Attorney-General John Cauchi.

The commission, established a week after the ferry tragedy, will have three members.

So far, only Supreme Court judge Justice Warwick Andrew has been sworn in as chairman last month.

“The commission’s investigation has been running since about the August 11 … The second commissioner has been nominated and should be appointed [this] week,” Cauchi told Pacific Media Watch.

Media restraints and responsibility
Meanwhile, Cauchi has urged the media to exercise restraint and responsibility in its coverage of the August 6 disaster, adding that the Royal Commission hearings would allow “victims and survivors’ stories to be told in a sensitive, respectful and measured way.”

Those who do not comply could face charges of “contempt of the Royal Commission”, and possibly fines or orders for adjudication.

Attorney-General John Cauchi ... cautions media. Photo: Matangi Tonga.

Attorney-General John Cauchi ... cautions media. Photo: Matangi Tonga.

At least one letter to the editor of a Tongan media outlet has been regulated at the request of the Attorney-General.

Board members of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd, which owned the inter-island ferry Princess Ashika, have also stated that they cannot make any comments on the seaworthiness or possible causes of the sinking until the commission completes its investigation, which may not be until next year.

In the mean time, “[the media] should simply continue to avoid publication of speculation about the causes of the accident,” said Cauchi.

“The principle is that all Tongans have a right to a fair trial. That involves the Attorney-General making sure that there is as little material as possible in the public arena which has the tendency to be prejudicial.”

Free speech
However, the move to control public discussion about the circumstances of the Princess Ashika’s sinking has angered some groups, including the New Zealand Tongan Society for Political Reform in Tonga (NZTSPRT), which has criticised government actions as “heavy-handed” and “unwarranted”.

“People have a right to express their views and grieve openly over what has happened,” the society said in a statement.

“The Royal Commission of Inquiry must not be used as a method to restrict freedom of speech and to dampen people’s rights to seek justice and answers for the deaths of so many lives.”

The Royal Commission announced its terms of reference to the public today.

The areas of investigation outlined include the cause of the disaster; evidence of any criminal act contributing to the disaster; evidence of any civil responsibility for the disaster; the reasons why so many lives were lost; and ways to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

The ship sank barely a month after being commissioned. Conflicting figures have been given for the death toll of the shipping tragedy – Tonga’s worst.

There were 53 survivors – all men – and two bodies were found. It is believed that up to 72 people may have drowned.

Tonga’s Transport Minister Paul Karalus resigned six days after the disaster.

A preliminary report from the inquiry is due on November 30 and the final report next March 31.

Josephine Latu is a Masters in Communication Studies student at AUT University and contributing editor of the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch.