Speak truth to power

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Alex Perrottet.

Dear Leader, Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, was obsessed with dismantling Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC).  His fixation dominated the airwaves.

Announcing on Radio New Zealand that “replacing the leadership of the state broadcaster is all part of a plan to introduce positive change in the country,” his strategy had a negative effect.

Scorned for sacking the TBC general manager, Nanise Fifita, the board chair, Lady ‘Eseta Fusitu’a, and an acting CEO of Tonga Communications Corporation, Rizvi Jurangpathy, the media chanted Pesi Fonua’s words: “the Prime Minister is trying to control Tonga Broadcasting Commission.”

But the government plan of attack was far more ambitious.  The entire media and communications sector would be privatised if the rumoured sale of TBC to the transnational corporate, Digicel, went ahead.

Devoid of a broadcasting service paid for by the public for their information, education, and entertainment, Tonga’s media industry would be driven by advertising sponsorship and commercial profit.

Our queries.  Would the quality and standard of news reporting and ethical journalism decrease?  Yes.

Could the government use advertising dollars to buy off a private news outlet to only report their political messages?  Yes.

Could Tonga’s political news resemble the Fox News favouritism toward U.S. President, Donald Trump, and his Republican Government?  Yes.

In Tonga, a small island state with a population of just over one hundred thousand, would state corruption thrive if government was allowed to control the media and deprive a free press?  Yes.

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

And that’s our point.  Tongan journalists were thrown into a crackdown crisis.  Scurrying to cover the news, they found the Fifita, Fusitu’a, and Jurangpathy cases had different contexts of dismissal, but were all tied to the legalities of employment contracts.

While deciphering employment war, which was a courtroom battle between lawyers, local media missed the mark.  They should’ve been arguing points of law most relevant to them as the country’s journalists.

Bottom line?  The government fired Nanise Fifita objecting to the way she managed the news team at TBC.  Was this course of action a constitutional breach of Tonga’s Declaration of Rights?


It shall be lawful for all people to speak, write and print their opinions and no law shall ever be enacted to restrict this liberty.  There shall be freedom of speech and of the press for ever but nothing in this clause shall be held to outweigh the law of slander or the laws for the protection of the King and the Royal Family.

Constitution of Tonga


Essentially yes because here’s the thing: Pohiva never claimed that the TBC had slandered his government.  He said they’d failed “to facilitate the work of government,” meaning he thought they were against his regime.

Partiality or objectivity is not in violation of freedom of the press under the constitution.  The whole idea of a free press is that it’s public opinion whether Tongan citizens think TV Tonga News is for or against the government.

Although newscasts are punishable if libellous, freedom of speech remains a pillar of the democratic state.  It was the Noble from the North, MP Lord Fusitu’a, who voiced the nobility’s support for constitutional freedoms guaranteed the media.  Contrarily the people’s representatives, especially Pohiva’s Democratic Party MPs, fell silent.


The very basis of any Westminster democracy is the rule of law and once you chip away at freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, you are chipping away at the rule of law which ends up, in most cases, disregard to the rule of law.  Which is extremely destructive to any democracy of any sort.

Lord Fusitu’a


In the month of May the Prime Minister’s sacking rampage triggered political emissions of unbearable heat.  Where was Fusitu’a to comment for the Noble MPs in the international and local media?

May the 5th, Karolos Maissa, an advocacy officer at the European Parliament tweeted a caption and photograph at @KarolosMaissa.


@LordFusitua from #Tonga brings the issue of #climatechange migration which is not included in the 1953 Refugees Convention #shemovesg7

Karolos Maissa

Lord Fusitu’a (right) and Lord Tu’ivakano (left) representing the Tonga Delegation at the European Parliament G7/20 Conference in Rome. Photograph: Karolos Maissa.

Fusitu’a was in Rome with Tonga’s delegation to the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.  Speaking up on climate migration, strategically he drew global attention to the most pressing issue of our times.

Here was a different forced migration to the one Europe had witnessed with influxes of refugees from war-torn Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa.

It was a saltwater migration.  In his home country Tonga, and in neighbouring Pacific Island states, people lived with the constant fear of not knowing if their homes, villages, and islands could outlast the rising sea.

Niua Fo’ou Island on Tonga’s northern border. Photograph: Garth and Sandy Hamblin.



Almost a year ago in September 2016, Fusitu’a entered the international debate on climate migration at the UN General Assembly in Manhattan.  A side event organised by The Commonwealth gave him a platform to share law and policy interests in populations forced to migrate due to climate change.

Interviewing for Radio New Zealand, he reflected on the event.  His story brought to light that Niua Fo’ou, his volcanic island on Tonga’s northern border, was central to his work and close to his heart.


In Tonga, where I’m from, the electorate that I represent in the House and where my estates are furthest north.  It’s the Niua group of islands or particularly for myself, Niua Fo’ou.  Being the northernmost it is often vulnerable to the effects of climate change and cyclones.  If there was a natural disaster, or, [if] the effects of climate change and the population of the islands where I am from were forced to migrate, it would not only have an effect on the people who had to migrate, but, legal ramifications of Tonga no longer having a populous on that island or in that area, would mean that questions would be raised about our claim to that particular island and the borders of our EEZ or economic zone because of that migration.  Claims may be raised from other Pacific Islands that they can lay claim to those islands, and therefore encroach on our EEZ.  And it’s these kinds of legal issues that at first may not be obvious, but they are most definitely raised by climate change induced migration.  It is something for us to be prepared for and to address.

Lord Fusitu’a


What was his solution to climate migration?  Fusitu’a remarked to Radio New Zealand: “There is a real need to clarify the legal framework surrounding climate change induced migration.”

Niua Fo’ou men meeting the Government ferry anchored offshore. Photograph: Garth and Sandy Hamblin.

And that’s where the political undertaking he’d set for himself – “to clarify the legal framework” – got really hard.  The 1951 Refugee Convention didn’t include climate migrants in its legal definition.

More than that, a recent World Bank report highlighted that Pacific Islanders “do not wish for their peoples to be treated as refugees.”


The worsening impacts of climate change have provided a new moral imperative for providing open access.  The two governments [of Kiribati and Tuvalu] would prefer a slow outward flow resulting from voluntary migration and do not wish for their peoples to be treated as ‘refugees’ fleeing a hopeless economic and environmental situation.  However, much more is needed.  One intervention which should be considered is the provision by Australia and New Zealand of open labour market access to Kiribati and Tuvalu, on grounds of their acute climate change risks.

ANU/World Bank Report


Australian National University researchers authoring the World Bank report came up with a solution.  Australia and New Zealand should have a labour mobility policy of open access for citizens from Kiribati and Tuvalu.

They were the Pacific Islanders most at risk of relocation because of the severe way in which climate change had ravaged their low-lying atolls.

Fusitu’a set his political lens on bolstering the legal “safety net” in international law to protect Pacific Islanders displaced by climate change.  He wanted an international instrument in the 1951 Refugee Convention in which the category for climate migrants could be included.


Lord Fusitu’a’s constituency is the Niuas, three of the northern most group of islands [in Tonga].  The barrister and solicitor wants the [Refugee] Convention updated so it can act as [a] safety net for people displaced by climate change.

The Ethics Centre


At Sydney Town Hall on June 6, he was debating in a line-up of six esteemed panellists representing the United Nations, politics, academia, and media in the IQ2 Debate organised by The Ethics Centre.

The topic centred on Fusitu’a’s law and policy expertise: The Refugee Convention is Out of Date.  The crux of the debate?  “Is it time to overhaul the rules” of the 1951 Refugee Convention?  His position was affirmative, update the law.

Lord Fusitu’a, Tonga’s Noble MP for the Niua Islands. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

A consequence of Tonga’s media battling against the government is the time and energy of journalists goes into fighting the state for press freedom.

In the process, important news of national interest, such as Fusitu’a’s quest to have the climate migrant category included in international law, goes unreported.  Who misses out on relevant, reliable, reputable reportage?  The public.

Our thoughts resonate with New Zealand historian Vince O’Malley.  Recently he wrote for The Guardian slamming successive New Zealand governments for deliberately erasing Maori history from society’s memory.  “What a nation chooses to remember and forget speaks to its priorities,” were his wise words.

We could say the same of Tonga.  The Pohiva government has chosen to forget the people are the first priority.  The only thing this cabinet can remember is to look after themselves.

There’s a recurring provocation in national politics that Prime Minister Pohiva keeps bringing up.  We question the integrity of his position.

Because why would Pohiva think he can threaten to abolish the nobles’ election, when it’s the noble MPs who’ve shown that the people of Tonga, the values of Tonga holding our Kingdom together, are their first concern?

Tonga’s Noble MP Lord Fusitu’a meets Pope Francis at the Vatican City, Rome. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

The answer?  Same as the media debacle – absolute power and political control drive Dear Leader.  How wrong to subvert our democracy six years after its inception when we’ve hardly got started.

The final word goes to Radio New Zealand’s CEO, Paul Thompson, who came out fighting for the Tonga Broadcasting Commission to Radio Australia’s Bruce Hill.

The President of the Public Media Alliance, Thompson was no small fish in the Pacific media ocean.  His voice had weight and influence: “speak truth to power.”

Raising his organisation’s apprehensions with King Tupou VI, it was obvious that the Tongan Prime Minister was way out of line.  The critical inquiry is: what would be done about him?


His [‘Akilisi Pohiva’s] criticisms cut to the core of what an independent media is.  What he’s talking about is propaganda, spin doctoring and compromised reportage.  What a good public service broadcaster needs to do is to be independent of that kind of influence and speak truth to power.  These are lofty statements but they really matter at a time when citizens rely on a reliable service of information.

Paul Thompson


Paul Thompson, Radio New Zealand CEO and President of the Public Media Alliance. Photograph: David White.


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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