BATTLING TAIMI ‘O TONGA FLOURISHING ABROAD

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BATTLING TAIMI ‘O TONGA FLOURISHING ABROAD

By Peter Wagner

HONOLULU (Pacific Islands Report, Aug. 4) – The latest in a
series of attempts by the Tongan government to silence a defiant newspaper seems
to have had little effect on its burly publisher.

"One of the most annoying things to the rulers in Tonga is
that people are buying the paper like it is bread," said Kalafi Moala,
whose embattled twice-weekly Taimi ‘o Tonga has survived threats, arrests, and
outright bans in its 14-year history. "I think now that the people have had
a taste of the free flow of information, they’ll never go back."

The Tongan government on July 28 introduced a measure to the
Legislative Assembly restricting foreign ownership of any media to 20 percent of
company assets. Moala has little doubt that Media Operators Act, approved after
three readings on the same day, is aimed at his Auckland-based newspaper.

"We can switch," he said calmly.

The Tonga-born naturalized United States citizen said he would
respond to the new law by incorporating his newspaper as a Tongan company under
his wife, a Tongan citizen.

The Tongan government, a constitutional monarchy headed by
85-year-old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, in February banned the importation of the
Taimi ‘o Tonga as a foreign threat. According to the New York-based Committee
to Protect Journalists, no offending article was cited by the Tongan government
in ordering the ban. But editors of the newspaper said they believed the
crackdown stemmed from exposes of alleged corruption by government officials and
the royal family.

The ban followed a March 2002 sedition charge against the
newspaper’s editor, Mateni Tapueluelu, for writing an article alleging large
royal bank accounts overseas. The sedition charge was later dropped.

If the Taimi ‘o Tonga has had a rough time in its homeland,
the little publication is flourishing in Tongan communities abroad. According to
Moala, Tongan readers in Honolulu, San Francisco and Salt Lake City are paying a
hefty US$3.50 per copy to find out what is going on back home.

"The U.S. would be our biggest market, but we haven’t
even touched it," he said.

Moala said the Tongan-language Taimi is in high demand among the
41,000 Tongans in New Zealand, 35,000 in Australia, and about 60,000 in the U.S.
The numbers add up to a far larger expatriate market than current circulation
within Tonga.

According to Moala, the Lali Media Group - which currently
publishes Taimi ‘o Tonga, Samoan International, Cook Island Star, and the
Indian Tribune - last year grossed about US$1.8 million. The company currently
has 25 employees and is scouting for locations in Hawaii or the West Coast to
print Taimi ‘o Tonga for expanded U.S. distribution.

Also in the works is a website - www.taimiotonga.com
- which Moala hopes will be up and publishing his newspaper in two languages by
the end of this month.

"If they shut us down in Tonga, we’d continue to
survive," he said.

Moala, a big, affable man, was not always a pioneering
journalist. He spent 25 years abroad, as a youth worker in Hawaii and a
communications specialist and magazine editor in Tokyo before returning to Tonga
in 1989. That’s when he decided to try his hand at newspapering for the first
time.

"I didn’t know anything – how to write stories or lay
out pages," he said.

But as Moala went about his early efforts to gather local news,
he found his newspaper being snapped up.

"I found out that people were extremely hungry for
news," he said. "They wanted to find out what was going on in their
government."

Struggling to put out the fledgling newspaper on a single-sheet
press, Moala decided to move the operation to Auckland, where he could run off
the Taimi on a more productive "web" press. The paper’s production
shot up from about 3,000 copies to nearly 10,000 per issue.

"It’s important for us to continue to publish in New
Zealand because we can make the paper quickly available and because our foreign
readership has surpassed our Tongan readership."

Moala said he has fought government attempts to silence his
newspaper because, while Tonga is ruled by a king, it remains a constitutional
monarchy. And the country’s 130-year-old constitution, he said, guarantees
freedom of speech and the press.

But a new effort by the ruling royal family to amend the
constitution would remove those freedoms, and threaten other liberties, Moala
said.

"We have a king that has almost absolute authority in
Tonga," said Moala. "We have a system that essentially rubber-stamps
everything that comes from the palace."

Still, Moala said he harbors no ill for the country’s
venerable monarch.

"We don’t want to overthrow this king," he said.
"He is a part of the national identity. But he should reign, not
rule."

August 5, 2003

 

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