Pacific Scoop

Interview with Dr Sione Vikilani

Press Release – Pacific Media Watch

In the path towards democracy, the media becomes increasingly relevant in Tonga’s political and social development. The Tonga Chronicle/TMN caught up with Parliament’s public awareness and education officer Dr Sione Vikilani, a former broadcaster who …Interview With Dr Sione Vikilani

In the path towards democracy, the media becomes increasingly relevant in Tonga’s political and social development. The Tonga Chronicle/TMN caught up with Parliament’s public awareness and education officer Dr Sione Vikilani, a former broadcaster who earned his doctorate in media and journalism from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, to talk about Tongan media and the challenges they face today. Interview by Josephine Latu

NUKU’ALOFA (Taimi Online/Pacific Media Watch): Dr Sione F. Vikilani talks about promoting public awareness about Tonga’s Legislative Assembly and its functions, roles and activities and the media.

Tonga Chronicle: Why you think it is important to have a Fourth Estate in Tonga given our current [political] situation right now?

Dr Sione Vikilani: I think right now we are in a transition stage… In this transition, there is no other place where I could put more emphasis on than the media. The reason is that it’s the only medium that connects the people to the government and other branches of the executive. How they make their decisions will depend on what they hear on the radio, what they read in the papers, what they see on TV…

Now we have more news outlets. I think it’s a very good move but at the same time it can be very dangerous because people tend to take sides, to prefer one media over the other. For instance, even though they might listen to the radio, they still prefer to read a certain newspaper. They may be listening to the radio but they’re not really hearing what comes out from the radio because it’s not the same as their belief – they don’t really trust that information. They would rather read the paper because that reinforces their beliefs.

Tonga Chronicle: So you’re saying that media takes sides and people read the ones that are the same as their side or beliefs?

Dr Vikilani: Well, you don’t have to call it “taking sides”. You can see in Tonga you usually have [a certain] media organisation that promotes [a certain] type of ideas. For example, you have the pro-democracy movement. From the beginning they had the Kele’a [newspaper] promoting their ideas, doing what they believed in, which was human rights and all that. On the other hand you have the Tonga Chronicle for example, which in the past was the government’s major news outlet. When the Kele’a first came, people saw it as an alternative news source. Then came the Taimi ‘o Tonga and Talaki, so people started to – not really take sides – but take preference of the type of media they like. People have preference of the type of information they want and the types of beliefs they have.

Tonga Chronicle: So how does media preference affect people’s minds or politics – is there a connection there at all?

Dr Vikilani: Well I think the only real evidence here is the elections… As in the case of the 2008 [elections] for example, some newspapers and TV and radio stations and were bombarding the pro-democracy movement. At the end of the day they still won. So you see that even though some people were listening to the radio and TV and what they were putting out, it still didn’t change their views. It all comes down to the audience preference and how they view what comes from a particular medium.

Tonga Chronicle: Do you think the Tongan audience is very media literate? Can people look at a story and say: “I like this story, but I know it’s a lie”?

Dr Vikilani: Well, I think with for some at the grassroots it’s very difficult. People may or may not know if a story is right or not, but they can say “this is where my beliefs are”. They don’t look at it critically saying “this is wrong” – they just read the paper.

I was once told by one of the top journalists in Tonga that one of the problems in Tonga is that the media has gone far ahead of the readers. What he meant was that the media here is developed but the readers have yet to follow the same steps in going forward.

There’s also the theory of personal satisfaction. People only want what they want, they don’t want other people’s views. I had an uncle who disliked one newspaper and liked another newspaper and I asked him why. He said it was because he liked the people who were promoting it and I said, what if the story is wrong? He just said: “It’s not wrong, it’s right. Everything they say is right.” So there you go. It’s hard to change people’s perceptions.

Tonga Chronicle: What do you think is challenging the media today in Tonga?

Dr Vikilani: I think the major challenge is working together. If you have a media council where all media outlets come together and make sure they follow certain rules – because it is very influential what media put out, it affects the lives of people… So if they come together and form this organisation make sure they stick to the media ethics, always present the facts and have no sensationalism – well I think sensationalism will always be there, but at least you have somewhere to start from… I know we have a [Tonga Media Council], but it’s like a media council with no teeth. You need to have something where you make sure that they have to abide by rules.

It’s not so much as a punishment, but at least to make the public feel safe. I knew some political candidates who were afraid of saying things because they might be on the front cover of a newspaper. Part of the solution is to have a well-trained media. I know most of them are trained on the job.

I think the Freedom of Information Act is important also. We should have one so that everyone gets to get the same information from the same source without having to say “oh we tried to contact them but they didn’t respond”, so they run the story one-sided.

Also, for the government to be very transparent – like having a weekly press conference with the Information Ministry or the PM’s press secretary so the media will have access to the right information. Once they get access to the information, the people will get the right facts, so they make their decisions based on facts and not on hearsay or whatever – our coconut wireless is very active and very fast nowadays now that you have Twitter, Bebo, Facebook, telephone, email…

Tonga Chronicle: You’ve said the media is like the new fala or “mat” in the Tongan proverb “Fofola e fala kae alea e kainga” (Roll out the mat so the kainga can confer). What do you mean by that?

Dr Vikilani: Well, the media is like the political space. You have the political triangle – or the “love-hate” triangle as I call it – people depend on the media to get the information from government, government depend on the media to get information to the people. The media depend on the people to buy the news. So I’m suggesting that the media is like the new mat. Because when we say “roll out the mat so the kainga can do the talking” – you have the media as a forum to discuss and clear out issues, so that people can make decisions based on facts. There are no secrets anymore in government. I emphasise here that we’re talking about facts, not just talkback shows where some may get wrong information. It’s always the onus of the media to get the right facts so people get the right information to make the right decisions.

Tonga Chronicle: Anything else you want to add?

Dr Vikilani: I just hope all the media can come together [under one council] and work together. I think once they understand what’s at stake then they can really work together.


Pacific Media Watch item 7271

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