The call of the Friendly Islands

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Google Images.

Someone circulated a satirical meme about Dear Leader – The Prime Minister of Tonga, ‘Akilisi Pohiva – who spouted to Radio Australia that in his country, “media is a government property.”  The confused reasoning?  He figured he dictated the industry.

That was about the time some brave individual got on the internet and put up a challenge.  The meme told the Prime Minister he was wrong.  What else could the Tongan public do?

The Kingdom’s volatile political climate had suppressed the media.  Nowadays the value of a critical journalist was diminished.  Reduced to biting-the-bullet some, more than others, were expected to cower, curtsey, and crawl to the government to stay open for business in an industry under constraints.

Without a doubt, Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) was the hardest hit.  Dear Leader had branded them the enemy of his government.  Most distressing were the rumours that grew wings and flew out of his private discussions, landing within earshot of Tonga’s top journalists.  Senior reporters had a hunch the end was nigh.

The Tonga Broadcasting Commission founded in 1961 during the reign of Queen Salote Tupou III. Photograph: Radio Heritage Foundation.

After a fifty-six year gig as The Call of the Friendly Islands, it was speculated that the country’s only public broadcaster and largest news outlet was to be terminated.

Journalists murmured among themselves that three alternatives had surfaced: selling TBC to a private company, Digicel; restructuring by privatisation – meaning Leitio Tonga Broadcom 87.5 would be contracted to run TBC; or shutting TBC down completely.

When Kaniva New Zealand broke the story about Tonga’s Prime Minister “considering sacking the chair of the [TBC] board Tapu Panuve” along with “board member Aloma Johannson” for renewing the “CEO Nanise Fifita’s contract,” it signalled the beginning of the end.

Set in motion was the plan to disassemble the public broadcaster.  Worse still, was the media affliction of self-censorship paralysing the industry with dread and angst.

Question: in the age of constitutional rights guaranteeing free speech and a free press, why would journalists gag themselves and censor their work in fear of government disapproval?  Answer: job losses in a struggling small island economy.

In 2013 Francis Herman, program manager for the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme, gave an interview to Tess Newton-Cain of the Development Policy Centre at Australian National University.  Noting the tenuousness of media freedom in the Pacific, he stressed “the politics of the Pacific” had impeded its development.

 

In relation to media freedom in the Pacific, Francis [Herman] said that in his opinion it had been thwarted by the politics of the Pacific.  As evidence for his position, he pointed to the numerous countries introducing legislation or government controlled regulatory authorities with the intent of controlling the media rather than allowing for a self-regulated but responsible industry.

Tess Newton-Cain

 

Four years on from that interview Francis Herman was in Tonga writing a report for the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS).  The subject: Tonga Broadcasting Commission and the Prime Minister’s resolve to see its current arrangement cease to exist.

When would the report be released to the public?  Where were the statements in support for TBC and media freedom from Pacific media organisations?  The silence was deafening.

Francis Herman, Program Manager for the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme with Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Because here’s the thing: if Lord Fusitu’a, noble MP for the Niua Islands, hadn’t tweeted @LordFusitua on March 29th that he was interviewing for Herman’s report, the public would be none the wise that any such review was being undertaken by a media organisation.

 

Glad to be asked for my views – Francis Herman PACMAS – review the TBC.  Constitutionality of PM’s actions to close TBC. #WeStandForPacMediaFreedom.

Lord Fusitu’a

 

Fusitu’a’s hashtag, “We Stand For Pacific Media Freedom,” spoke volumes.  The “We” he referred to were the seven noble MPs in opposition to government.

Here were the seven nobles who in February had led a parliamentary vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister.  One of the grounds for removing ‘Akilisi Pohiva was his suspension of TBC senior news journalist Viola Ulakai for asking hard questions of him as the head of government.

Lord Fusitu’a and the Noble MPs in Tonga’s Parliament. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

 

 

Motive was the missing piece to the puzzle.  What drove Prime Minister Pohiva to wage war against certain board members, senior managers, and journalists at the Tonga Broadcasting Commission?  Kalafi Moala shared his insights in a Radio Australia interview with Bruce Hill.

 

You give him power and that’s what he did.  That’s exactly what happens.  You have a person who was in the opposition, but you give them power, they became the government, and immediately they behave in a completely different way from the way they used to be.  Somehow, at least in Tonga, power means that you have the right only for your message.  Nobody else has the right to ask questions, and that is one of the sad things about this government.

Kalafi Moala

 

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the adage goes.  Or in Tonga’s case, there was a systematic breakdown of checks and balances putting a stop to the Prime Minister misusing power.

With the public right to a free press, Pohiva’s political behaviour of stepping over boundaries was on repeat.  Was he in breach of the law, or did he truly believe that as the government head the law could be set aside for him to do as he pleased?

Francis Herman, Program Manager for the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme with Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

To counter the loss of media freedom, Tongans took to social media.  This was the last bastion of civil liberty to voice their objection to the Prime Minister dismantling the Tonga Broadcasting Commission.

Francis Herman remarked that “political leaders and policy makers” should raise their awareness to social media.  This was the communication tool for enabling and empowering civil society to speak up to government.

 

Francis [Herman] believes it is very important that political leaders and policy makers make themselves more aware of [social media’s] potential uses and applications, particularly in facilitating dialogues between the governing and the governed.

Tess Newton-Cain

 

If there’s one thing that stands out in the ‘Akilisi Pohiva spat with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, it’s this.  Social media has prevailed where media has failed.

It is true that some Tongan journalists have resisted self-censorship.  But where is the support from their media colleagues in New Zealand and Australia who’ve made a living off reporting on the Pacific?

This is when Tonga needs allies to rally for media freedom.  If the only ones rallying are Tongans themselves, then one has to ask: is our fledgling democracy not just as important as theirs in the West?

Authors

Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland and the publisher of the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net

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