By 'Eseta Fusitu'a

HONOLULU (Pacific Magazine, April 2004) - Like most developing countries the rapid changes in media technology and the increasingly active operation of the media services are a relatively recent experience for Tonga. As is the usual trend under these circumstances, the establishment of the necessary regulatory guidelines and procedures tend to follow afterwards.

In 2000, Parliament passed the Communications Act, which, in addition to its technical and other provisions, established for the first time in Tonga the requirement for media services, in this instance television, radio and the Internet providers (but not newspapers), to be licensed and to operate in accordance to its content guidelines.

The Communications Act was passed without controversy. Some of the most high profile Parliamentary leaders of the opposition to the Newspaper Act 2003 were then in Parliament. Government has never used any of the provisions of the Act against any operator.

In October 2003, Government completed the exercise it began in 2000, by passing the Media Operators and the Newspaper Acts. Like the Communications Act 2000, the Newspaper Act also required that the newspaper operators, printers and publishers be licensed, and that they too are to operate in accordance with content requirements of the Act. A license was also now required for importing, distributing or selling foreign newspapers in Tonga. Also, like some other countries, foreign ownership of the media services in Tonga was limited, in this instance to a maximum of 20 percent.

All the law requires is that the licensee be 80 percent Tongan-owned, and that the editorial and senior staff have proven journalistic competence and records of commitment to honesty, fairness, independence, and respect for the rights of others. Unsuccessful applicants have the right to appeal.

The Communications Act 2000 requires television, radio and Internet service providers not to supply contents which are: indecent, obscene, blasphemous, treasonous, seditious or defamatory; or that display excessive violence or contravene the law of Tonga.

The Newspaper Act 2003 requires newspapers not to supply contents as noted above, not to invade the privacy of an individual without that individual's consent, and to be honest, fair, independent and respect the rights of others.

Since 2000, all applications for radio, television and Internet service provider licenses have been approved.

Of the nine applications in January 2004 for licenses to print and publish newspapers in Tonga, six were approved. The three declined were the Kele'a owned by Po'oi Pohiva, a newly proposed newspaper to be called the Niuvakai owned by the Lali Media Limited, which was previously owned by Kalafi Moala but is now owned by his wife, the current editor of the Taimi 'o Tonga, and another Tongan gentleman. The third application was from a new company called "Vula", owned by Filokalafi 'Akauola, the former deputy editor of the Taimi 'o Tonga and manager of their Tonga office until the end of December 2003. Talaki is the name of "Vula's" newspaper.

The proposed editors and licensees of the Kele'a, Niuvakai and the Talaki, respectively, were Messrs Po'oi Pohiva, Mateni Tapueluelu and Filokalafi 'Akauola. Like all their fellow applicants the journalistic records of these three proposed editors were assessed in accordance with Section 9 of the Newspaper Act. The emphasis was basically on two of the core requirements of the Act and on responsible journalism, namely accuracy of the data, and whether the subjects of the articles were accorded their right of reply. It was the pattern of performances that was the deciding factor.

The assessment of the Kele'a and the Taimi 'o Tonga proved that their levels of factual accuracy and respect for their subjects' right of reply did not satisfy the requirements. The three could not be granted newspaper licenses.

One application differed from the rest. This from the Vava'u Press Company owned by Pesi Fonua (51 percent) and his non-Tongan wife Mary Fonua (49 percent). In January 2004 the Fonuas lodged their company's application that clearly contravened the 80 percent Tongan ownership requirement of the Media Operators Act. In February, Mr. Fonua then lodged an application under his own name. This complies with the Tongan ownership requirement, and given his proven sound journalistic record and competence in the past, this application is therefore most likely to legally qualify for a license.

Since then, however, Mr. Fonua has repeatedly asked the Department of Communications to postpone the processing of this application. Should he allow the Department to process it, then the Department will be more than happy to do so.

There was virtually no attention to the 2000 Communications Act and to the operation of Tonga's television, radio and Internet services. This ongoing neglect of an Act whose licensing and content requirements are almost identical to the Newspaper Act is astounding and difficult to explain.

Is it because newspapers are more important than television, radio and Internet? Are newspapers entitled to exemptions and immunity that the other media services have no right to? Do the chief critics of Tonga's Newspaper Act stand to lose financially, electoraly or in other ways when the public's right to professional journalism is protected?

Critiquing Tonga's Newspaper and Media Operators Act 2003, and the processing of applications for licenses, requires the following:

o Total familiarity with the contents of the newspapers that operated in Tonga, almost all of which are in Tongan.

o Knowledge of the Communications Act 2000, Media Operators Act 2003, Newspaper Act 2003 and Act of Constitution of Tonga (Amendment) Act 2003.

o Journalistic ethics, rights and responsibilities.

It is unfortunate that most of the "objective" critiquing of Tonga's newspaper laws and licensing requirements from abroad including those of well known media groups are in fact based on very sketchy knowledge of the laws themselves. Such critiquing is basically uninformed, and does great injustice to the subject being critiqued. How can anyone critique a newspaper that they have not read? How can anyone critique English or Chinese newspapers if they do not understand English or Chinese at all?

The focus of such critiquing on journalistic ethics as the full grounds for their verdicts also clouds one of the most important facts, and that is that the Government of Tonga is also of this view. It is exactly because of this view, and the Government's knowledge that some of the media have unscrupulously abused this important code of ethics, and severely damaged the public's right to honest and fair journalism for about two decades, and the failure of all efforts including those by the media to solve this dilemma that Government has finally decided to take the necessary actions.

Many countries today, such as the United States and Singapore, do not consider it right or appropriate in principle that their local media be controlled by foreigners. It is not just an issue of sovereignty, but also of the unacceptable control from abroad of a country's editorial policy. Tonga is also of this view.

On the allegation that the legislations were meant to silence criticism of Government, firstly, the Government of Tonga respects the role of ethical and professional media as an essential partner in nation building. It does not, however, support journalism that regularly provides false facts, unbalanced reporting and persecution of people who the media owners dislike. Frequent personal attacks of chosen targets have been prevalent in some Tongan newspapers for nearly two decades, but often hiding behind the cloak of social commentary, letters to the editor venting hatred of chosen targets commonly run into two to three pages of some 20-page newspapers. Such poor quality journalism would never be accepted by Western newspapers.

The view that licenses have been issued only to supporters of Government are not supported by the facts. It is correct that the applications denied were to the three men who had worked for the Kele'a and the Taimi 'o Tonga. But the legal reason for declining their applications was because of the legally unsatisfactory journalistic records of their proposed editors. Criticizing government or anyone else ethically and professionally is not against the law.

One of the applications declined was by the "Vula News Co. Ltd." due to its proposed editor Filokalafi 'Akauola. The "Vula" then changed its proposed editor to Father Selwyn 'Akauola, elder brother of Filokalafi 'Akauola. Father 'Akauola was the first chairman of an anti-Government group called the Human Rights and Pro-Democracy Movement. For three years he was editor of the Catholic newspaper, the Taumu'a Lelei, which is the most politicized church paper in Tonga, and a frequent critic of Government. Fr. 'Akauola's journalistic record complied with the license requirement and Taumu'a Lelei was granted a license.

The Kele'a has now re-applied with a new proposed editor, and this is being processed. Lali Media Ltd. appealed but has not reapplied. This is also being processed.

It is the sincere hope of the Government of Tonga that sound professional journalism be strengthened and thrive in Tonga as it has in other countries that have found it necessary to accord equal rights to both the media and the public. To ensure that this happens Government is also in the process of preparing consultations and programs for collaborative action with the public and media.

'Eseta Fusitu'a is the Chief Secretary, Secretary to Cabinet and Registrar of Newspapers for the Government of Tonga

April 6, 2004

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