Tonga’s Finance Minister Exploring Forbes Interview Allegations

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Tonga’s Finance Minister Exploring Forbes Interview Allegations Officials unaware of agreement to pay $100,000 for magazine feature

By Pesi Fonua

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, June 25, 2015) – Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva told the House budget debate on Tuesday night that if the Government has to pay Forbes magazine USD$100,000 for an interview they did with him on 11 February, then there was nothing to worry about, - "it is not a big amount, we can recover the money", he said.

But the PM also said that if it was found there was no agreement to pay Forbes then "thanks for that."

The issue was raised as one of the last to be debated before the budget was passed on Tuesday night (23 June). The House needed to address the question of why the government has to pay such a big amount for the Prime Minister to be interviewed.

The Minister of Finance, Hon ‘Aisake Eke said that they had not yet paid Forbes and they were still trying to confirm if there was an agreement with Forbes, because they had not signed any agreement.

Lord Fusitu’a asked, "If there was a contract, can we have a look at it?"

Hon. ‘Aisake Eke responded that the details of the deals would come to the House in a report of the Ministry of Tourism.

Lord Vaea had reminded the House that Forbes magazine features film stars and very rich people. He questioned why would the magazine be interested to interview the Prime Minister of Tonga. "We know the salary of our Prime Minister, is he a rich Prime Minister?"

Lord Tu’ilakepa said that something unusual was happening there. He did not believe that the interview was conducted for Forbes because he said this magazine for rich people would have brought make-up people to polish up the faces.

Hon. Lavulavu, the Minister responsible for Tourism, responded by saying that ‘Akilisi was a popular Prime Minister.

Before they had the final vote on the Budget, the House unsuccessfully tried to clarify the outstanding issue of the Forbes paid interview that had been deferred from last week.

17 June

The issue was first raised in Parliament on 17 June by Lord Tu’iha’ateiho who asked if it was true that government had paid USD$100,000 to the American magazine Forbes to interview the Prime Minister for a feature story to be published to coincide with the crowning of the King of Tonga on 4 July.

It was believed that 400 copies of the magazine would be in Tonga for distribution during the Coronation.

At the time the Minister of Finance Dr ‘Aisake Eke said that the interview would be paid for from the budget allocation of the Ministry of Tourism.

The Prime Minister, Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva tried to clarify the exercise by saying that initially he did not know anything about the interview, but he knew that Forbes was a very popular magazine, and they were selective on who to interview, "but they came here to interview me. So that was the value of this interview. There is a belief that this is not a waste of money. The readers are popular people."

The Prime MInister’s Office in a press statement on 23 February had announced that two journalists came to Tonga from 11-19 February and interviewed the PM. According to the statement, Forbes picked Tonga, "based on two magnificent milestones… the appointment of the PM … and the upcoming Coronation."

The PMO also stated that, "the assigned project to this Tonga promotion is also designed and aimed to be translated into Chinese language as Tonga has benefitted from Chinese investors."

When Forbes asked what made Tonga stand out from its neighbours, the PM told the interviewers "I think the simplicity of our society makes Tonga more attractive…"

When Forbes asked him "how would you like to see your country when you leave the office?" the PM had answered "I sincerely hope they would continue to live within the means of what is available."

Budget

Tonga’s $496 million [US$233 million] budget for 2015-2016 is its biggest ever.

The budget was introduced into Parliament by the Minister of Finance, Dr ‘Aisake Eke on 2 June.

Yesterday was the final day to debate on Tonga 2015-2016 budget and the question of whether or not Tonga has paid Forbes $USD100,000, and whether or not a contract had been signed between the Forbes magazine and Tonga’s Ministry of Tourism, remained unanswered.

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