Tonga Newspaper Fined For Defaming PM, Other Leaders

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Letter to editor alleged officials could not be touched by law

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, June 14, 2013) – A letter writer to the Kele'a and the newspaper, along with its publisher and editor, were ordered to pay a total of TOP$249,442 [US$138,425] in damages and costs in a civil defamation case that was brought by the Tongan Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano and six Cabinet Ministers.

On 12 June, Police Magistrate Paula Tatafu found the defendants guilty of defaming the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers, when on 29 October 2012 a letter to the editor, written by Solomone Palu, was allowed by the editor, Mateni Tapueluelu and to be published by the publisher, Laucala Tapueluelu in the Kele'a newspaper.

The four defendants were Solomone Palu, the letter writer, Laucala Tapueluelu the publisher, Mateni Tapueluelu the editor, and the Kele'a publication.

The plaintiffs claiming defamation were the Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano; Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Samiu Vaipulu; Minister of Commerce, Tourism and Labour, Dr. Viliami Latu; the Minister for Revenue, Hon. Fe'ao Vakata; the Minister for Education and Training, Dr. 'Ana Taufe'ulungaki; the Minister for Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries, Hon. Sangster Saulala; and the Minister of Justice, Hon. Clive Edwards.

'Akilisi Pohiva acted as counsel for Solomone Palu; and Sione 'Etika was counsel for the Kele'a newspaper and its publisher and editor.

Hon. Clive Edwards represented himself, the Prime Minister and the five other Cabinet Ministers.

The court was told that the letter alluded to how some were blessed by the fact the law would not touch them. It referred to a decision to pay out TOP$34 million [US$18.9 million] of government money and stated it was wrong. It also referred that if the wrongdoing had been committed by People's Representatives they would have already been taken to court.

Not named

Police Magistrate Paula Tatafu in his decision of 12 June stated that the plaintiffs were not named in the letter, but there were references to the Prime Minister, his ministers and government leaders. The Police Magistrate interpreted that to mean "the Prime Minister and the six Cabinet Ministers," the plaintiffs.

Attempts by the defendants' counsel to use Fair Comment and Qualified Privilege as a defense were rejected by the Police Magistrate.

Each of the four defendants were ordered to pay TOP$5,000 [US$2,775] each to each of the seven plaintiffs, and also to pay the costs of legal fees for each of the plaintiffs, ranging from TOP$3,762 to TOP$4,001 [US$2,087 to US$2,220].

Legal fees

The legal fees for six Cabinet Ministers, who were represented by the Minister of Justice himself, Hon. Clive Edwards, amounted to a total of TOP$27,356.90 [US$15,181].

In addition to that, the Magistrate awarded the Minister of Justice TOP$37,452 [US$20,783] (being for damage TOP$20,000 [US$11,098] and costs of TOP$17,452 [US$9,684] for representing himself).

Mateni Tapueluelu, the Kele'a editor, said that they had launched an appeal against the decision.

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