GOVERNMENT SPIN DOCTORS MUDDY WATERS IN TONGA

Editorial

Matangi Tonga

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Dec. 28) – As the Tongan Government strengthens its control over the flow of information from its ministries to the public and exerts more influence on the editorial content of its two national media organisations, the Tonga Broadcasting Commission and the Ko e Kalonikali Tonga newspaper, it unwittingly creates confusion.

As the public endeavours to find out what is happening, it has opened up a door for government whistle blowers to suggest what might be really going on in government. An example of this is a rumour recently claiming that there has been a misappropriation of funds in a certain ministry. It leads to endless speculation.

At the same time government ministries are also undermining the fairness of commercial competition between government-owned media and the independent media.

One of the most interesting features of the current government of Hon. Dr Feleti Sevele is its approach to the dissemination of public information, and its working relationship with all the media in Tonga.

In an unprecedented move, Dr Sevele when he became Prime Minister surrounded himself with a number of key advisers. He took on a Political Adviser, who is also his Press Secretary; Cabinet appointed an Adviser on Reconciliation and Civic Education, to work on the aftermath of 16/11 [the November 16, 2006 Nukualofa riots]; and they also appointed an Economic Adviser.

These advisers, particularly the Press Secretary and the Reconciliation and Civic Education Adviser, have become the Prime Minister's mouthpieces or, as they are called in the media industry, "Spin Doctors". They write press releases and host television programs independently of the Government Information Unit, which is housed in the same building. The result is that their spin overshadows and sometimes confuses the press releases that continue to be issued from the Government Information Unit

Outside of the Prime Minister's sphere is the newly established Department of Information, which has absorbed the Government Information Unit and is supposed to be the main source of government news.

Apart from the Department of Information, individual ministries have their own information personnel, carrying out a range of activities, from writing press releases to hosting television and radio programs.

The Ministry of Finance took a step further and runs its own general news website where it offers free advertising, provided by public funding and in doing so undermines fair competition with the independent media who rely on advertising revenues and who also pay taxes on those revenues.

The involvement of government in the information industry is visually very extensive in terms of its huge financial investment, the hiring of senior media people, and the exertion of its influence.

The recent uproar over the banning of the broadcasting of political programs by the Tonga Broadcasting Commission raises questions over the mandate of the publicly funded TBC and the independence of its newsroom from the political arms of government.

The ideal that the TBC news and programming should be independent remains to be realised because of the fact that the chairman of the board has always been the Prime Minister himself.

While the TBC relies on government to finance its operations, it does not have a chairman who can protect the independence of the publicly funded news service. The chairman of the board is the Prime Minister, and the board employs the manager who controls the newsroom. As it stands, the chairman of board cannot negotiate successfully with himself to keep Tonga's publicly funded news service objective and free of political spin.

The government has even announced that when it lifts the ban on political broadcasting in public media early in 2008, it will introduce a draft guideline for journalists in the TBC newsroom.

By doing this the government will formalise the influence it has been exerting.

The other government owned media outlet that is fighting to be independent from influence is the weekly newspaper the Ko e Kalonikali Tonga, but this is another battle lost at the outset because the editor is an employee of the Department of Information.

The government involvement and investment in the media industry presents two fundamental problems: it creates confusion by denying the public a neutral and objective news service that is it supposed to be providing by spending tax payers' and aid donors' money; and it is also competing with the independent media using public funding to create an uneven playing field.

If the public is denied a neutral news service, then the whispers of whistle-blowers from the ranks of the public service will continue to play a bigger role in public communication, and meanwhile the public will become even more confused.

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