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Asia-Pacific Network: 9 March 2002


For 14 years, the Taimi 'o Tonga newspaper and publisher Kalafi Moala have been the scourge of the Tongan establishment - exposing abuse of power and oppressive moves designed to snuff out democracy. But when the government banned the New Zealand-based paper as a "prohibited import", hypocrisy and ambivalent support was the order of the day in some Pacific quarters.

Commentary by DAVID ROBIE

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FOR 14 years, the Taimi 'o Tonga newspaper and publisher Kalafi Moala have been the scourge of the Tongan establishment - exposing abuse of power and oppressive moves designed to snuff out democracy.

In this turbulent time, the biweekly newspaper has faced relentless harassment. The Nuku'alofa offices have been raided by police 12 times, editors have been arrested on several occasions, and staff have received threatening phone calls.

Last December, Moala, his Tongan office manager Filokalafi 'Akauola, and pro-democracy MP 'Akilisi Pohiva were awarded a combined US$26,000 by the Supreme Court in compensation for being jailed unconstitutionally for contempt of Parliament for 26 days in 1996.

Moala wrote about the intimidation and harassment of his newspaper and corruption in the Tongan government in a controversial book published last year, Island Kingdom Strikes Back.

But the Tongan government took its harshest ever step against Taimi o Tonga (Times of Tonga) late last month when it banned the paper as a "prohibited import" on the grounds that it was seditious and a foreign paper with a political agenda.

The government also claimed the standard of journalism was unacceptable, saying that the paper had not become a party to the Tonga News Association's "code of ethics".

The newspaper has been published in Auckland since 1997 in a converted garage behind Moala's home. It is in this newsroom in the industrial suburb of Penrose that eight journalists lay out and edit Taimi 'o Tonga and its sister papers.

Picture: Kalafi Moala in his Taimi office. Photo: © NZ Herald

Stories are gathered from Tongan communities in Australia, New Zealand and the United States as well as in Tonga.

Moala has vowed to fight the ban, saying the government had moved to gag the paper because of its relentless exposes of corruption in the kingdom.

His lawyers moved this week to challenge the ban in the Supreme Court under the kingdom's constitution which guarantees free speech. The hearing is due tomorrow.

"There should be an unconditional lifting of the ban as we have not done anything illegal or breached any laws in Tonga," says Moala.

"Even if we did, we should be charged and taken to court, but newspaper should not be banned."

One of the striking issues about the saga is the ambivalence and hypocrisy shown by some so-called Pacific media freedom organisations.

Moala's own organisation, the Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA) - where he is president, quickly came to his support, calling on readers of Taimi to back the paper's survival.

Some international media organisations such as Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also came out with strong statements protesting to the Tongan government.

Protesting directly to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, CPJ said it "fears that the importation ban on the Times of Tonga is another attempt by your government to silence the paper's critical reports.

"We respectfully remind Your Majesty that the Tongan Constitution guarantees press freedom. We call on you to lift the ban on the Times of Tonga immediately, and for you to ensure that all journalists are able to report and publish free from government interference."

However, the Suva-based Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), which has long touted itself as the leading media freedom lobby group in the Pacific, was ambivalent.

PINA president Johnson Honimae merely appealed to Tongan Prime Minister Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata to "urgently reconsider" the ban.

Honimae also came up with the bizarre and uninformed suggestion that the Tongan government could take its case against Taimi to the "independent and respected self-regulatory New Zealand Press Council".

The NZ Press Council has no jurisdiction over a Tongan language newspaper published primarily for a Tongan audience. Nor is Taimi a member of any body affiliated with the NZ Press Council.

On the other hand, the Tonga News Association - affiliated with PINA - is widely regarded in media industry circles as being a "puppet" of the Tongan government with a direct line to the royal family.

Tonga media industry sources say Fane Tupouvava'u, Princess Pilolevu's daughter, is patron of the association.

The president, Sangster Saulala, is editor of Tonga Star, funded by Princess Pilolevu and described by the Tongan government as "independent".

Saulala is also reportedly director of a television station in which the king has business interests.

According to Moala, the TNA is a 'government controlled organisation set up to muzzle the media'.

Taimi 'o Tonga journalists are members of the Tonga Journalists Association (TJA), which does have a code of ethics.

It is also interesting to note that in its annual media freedom awards PINA has never honoured Moala. Kalafi Moala and Filokalafi 'Akau'ola have been the only Pacific Islands journalists who have gone to jail over freedom of speech principles.

Hypocrisy still reigns in the Pacific media.

David Robie is co-convenor of Pacific Media Watch and a senior lecturer in journalism at Auckland University of Technology.

Copyright © 2003 David Robie and Asia-Pacific Network. This document is for educational and research use. Please seek permission for publication.
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