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Tonga’s Information Minister moves to clamp down on Island’s newspapers

Tonga's Ministry of Information and Communications, 'Eseta Fusitu'a. (Photo by MIC Tonga (www.mic.gov.to)

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Tevita Motulalo.

By her own admission on national television, the Minister of Information and Communication Hon. ‘Eseta Fusitu‘a, said she is looking at imposing restrictive regulation on the country’s newspapers.

This is despite the sensitive issue of Freedom of Speech and of the Press being one of extreme importance when Tonga steps up to become more democratic in its structure.

Currently, the Government has tight control of only the broadcasting media, from licensing, to content, to spectrum – under regulation through the Communications Act amongst other legislations.

Hon. Fusitu‘a was on a program on Television Tonga aired last Tuesday evening, saying that legislation will be in place for Government to regulate the print media with just as much authority as they have on broadcast media.

Information received by the Tonga Chronicle indicates that Hon. Fusitu‘a had already made enquiries with the Solicitor General on approaches to amend the Communications Act, adding provisions that will give Government more power over newspapers.

Government control can come in the form of licensing regulations, setting up of tribunals, to direct control by the Minister of Information or Prime Minister.

News media are protected by the 7th Clause of the Constitution, which guarantees Freedom of Speech and of the Press.

It is understood the Government is targeting the Kele’a newspaper for news coverage often critical of Government, as well as Government accusation that the ‘Akilisi Pohiva owned newspaper has been inaccurate and false in many of the things published.

Newspapers in the Kingdom have argued for so long that they are given Constitutional guarantee for freedom of the press, and therefore they operate on the belief that Tonga’s people have a Constitutional right to know which can only be given through vigorous adherence to freedom of the press.

The Clause 7 of the Tongan Constitution is the saviour for newspapers in Tonga, as any legislation or regulation that goes against has traditionally been ruled invalid and void.

In 2003, legislations were passed into law that restricted newspapers through setting up a licensing regime as well as a structural mandate that restricted foreign ownership.

One of those legislations were the Media Operators Act, the Newspaper Act, amongst other amendments in the then current legislation. Government was in control of the media then.

It was widely understood at the time that the target of these legislations was the Taimi ‘o Tonga newspaper, a critical paper against the Government of the day. But the legislations affected every newspaper. A consorted legal effort was made to oppose the legislations in court as being unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the newspapers plea and the legislations were made void.

The question then is whether the Minister of Information is trying to introduce the same legislations that were ruled invalid in 2003? It is interesting that the Minister was also involved in trying to push the legislations through then, as Chief Secretary to Cabinet.

Justice Minister Samiu Vaipulu denied there is any engagement by Cabinet to amend Clause 7 of the Constitution.

For government to come up with any laws to control the media, it has to amend clause 7 of the Constitution.

Kalafi Moala, Publisher of the Taimi ‘o Tonga, deplores any effort to give Government control of media, including newspapers.

“I am totally opposed to any form of Government control of media. I am very surprised that any one in Government is still thinking about restricting media freedom. I believe in media responsibility but that is not for Government to regulate.

“That should be left to the individual media operations to exercise responsibility in a professional manner. There are laws that protect the rights of media consumers, so why is Government thinking of bringing about more regulation?” Kalafi told Tonga Chronicle.