Pacific Media Watch
TONGA:
Media, politicians face charges


Title -- 3650 TONGA: Media, politicians face charges
Date -- 14 May 2002
Byline -- None
Origin -- Pacific Media Watch
Source -- Michael Field, afp.nz@clear.net.nz, 13/5/2
Copyright -- AFP
Status -- Unabridged


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TONGA'S MEDIA, POLITICIANS FACE CHARGES FOR LETTER ON KING TAUFA'AHOU TUPOU IV'S WEALTH

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (May 13, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---A Tonga court was due today to begin hearing sedition charges against politicians and journalists accused of forging a letter said to have revealed a secret multi-million-dollar fortune held by King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

At a preliminary hearing in Nuku‘alofa, Magistrate Faletau Mohenoa will determine whether there is a case to answer before a higher court.

The government failed in a bid to have almost all of the preliminary hearings held in secret.

Tongan officials have warned the media that the case is sensitive, as it concerns the king, who has near absolute power in the Polynesian island chain of 100,000 people, 1,770 kilometers (about 1,100 miles) north of here.

In January the newspaper Kele‘a published what it said was a 1991 letter from the king's late palace secretary, ‘Ofa Tu‘i‘onetoa, to the king's late financial adviser, Charlie Onodera, allegedly detailing 350 million U.S. dollars held by the king in off-shore bank accounts.

The Tongan government denied the king had a secret fortune.

The newspaper is owned by commoner politician ‘Akilisi Pohiva, who heads a small pro-democracy movement and has been advocating a constitutional monarchy for the past decade.

Several months before the newspaper report, the government said the king was being blackmailed over claims that he had recovered millions of dollars in gold from a 19th century shipwreck.

Onodera's family is said to be holding key files on the royal family, raising fears in the kingdom of other disclosures.

A month after Kele‘a published its first claims, police raided its offices and those of the independent Times of Tonga, seizing what it said were forged letters.

They arrested Pohiva, his son Po‘oi and his daughter Laucala Pohiva, who is a Times reporter. Times editor Mateni Tapueluelu was also arrested. Together they face 16 charges involving forgery, knowingly dealing with a forged document, sedition and conspiracy.

In a statement, the Tongan Prime Minister's Office said prosecutor Chief Inspector ‘Unga Faletau had filed an application seeking restrictions on reporting on the proceedings.

The eight points of restriction appear to amount to an almost total ban.

The government wanted to stop reporting on the identity of the court and the name of the justice presiding; the names, addresses and occupations of the parties and witnesses; and the ages of the accused and the witnesses. It also wanted to stop the naming of the offences, or even a summary of them, with which the accused were charged, the names of counsel and solicitors and any decision of the court to commit any of the accused for trial or dispose of the case.

Should any of the accused by committed to a high court trial, the government wanted suppressed the charges, or a summary of them, on which the accused were committed, as well as the venue and date for the new proceedings and any bail arrangements.

"The prosecution believed that by obtaining this order, a fair trial will be ensured to the defendants and the prosecution," the government said.

"The ... concern arose from the fact that this is a case of considerable public interest and as such the evidence and the proceedings itself will be debated by the public including possible jurors well before the trial starts."

The magistrate rejected the application by the kingdom, and the government said it accepted the ruling.

On March 19 Police Minister Clive Edwards called for accurate reporting of the case saying, "The court charges would involve serious and sensitive issues for Tonga.

"Certain elements of the media in particular are known for incorrect reporting and distorting circumstances to suit their own agenda," he said.



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