Ruled by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV since 1965, the kingdom of Tonga is undoubtedly the South Pacific’s most repressive country towards the news media. The biweekly Taimi ’o Tonga was banned for several months in 2003 and the government had a constitutional amendment passed that severely restricts press freedom.
Supported by his family and the nobility, the 85-year-old king ruled with an iron hand. In 2003, the royal family’s habitually aggressive statements towards the press evolved into open war against the independent, New Zealand-published biweekly Taimi ’o Tonga and other democratic voices on the island.
The authorities portrayed Taimi ’o Tonga editor Kalafi Moala as an enemy of the kingdom. Moala’s 2002 book "Island Kingdom Strikes Back: The Story of an Independent Island Newspaper - Taimi ’o Tonga" attacked the royal family’s nepotism and intolerance towards the independent press. He said the kingdom was inundated by scandals of which most if not all were linked to the king or his government. Taimi ’o Tonga often accused the government, headed by Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, of using force to prevent democracy and free expression from emerging.
The pro-government Tonga Media Association also attacked opposition journalists. Its president, Sangster Saulala, defended the ban on Taimi ’o Tonga on the grounds that it "never accepted the ethical rules of the Tongan press... and fomented discontent among the people." In June, Moala accused the association of supporting a proposed constitutional amendment that would drastically curtail press freedom. The king was able to count on parliament’s support as only nine of its members are elected and the 21 others are nobles or ministers.
In view of this decline in freedom of expression, parliamentarians in New Zealand called for a boycott of festivities linked to the king’s birthday in June. His son, the prime minister, said Tonga "will not allow itself to be intimidated by other nations."
Harassment and obstruction
On 26 February 2003, the government banned the importation of the independent biweekly Taimi ’o Tonga (Times of Tonga), which is published in New Zealand. It was "foreign," had a "political agenda" and had "unacceptable journalistic standards," the government said. With a circulation of 9,0000, the newspaper was critical of the authorities and had often accused them of corruption, for example, in the king’s decision to build a cigarette factory. The ban forced the editor to dismiss six of the eight Tonga-based journalists working for the newspaper.
In the face of widespread criticism, the government defended the ban: "Taimi ’o Tonga must submit to the Tonga media charter... and stop trying to overthrow the kingdom’s constitution," it said. The prime minister criticised its "biased content" and envisaged creating a press council to apply a law on the news media’s "obligations." Lawyers acting for Taimi ’o Tonga editor Kalafi Moala appealed to the supreme court on 6 March. At the same time, the king’s privy council upheld the decision to ban the biweekly in Tonga. The supreme court justices heard arguments from the defence and the government during the week of 24 March. The government’s lawyers claimed that the privy council’s decrees could not be the subject of judicial rulings.
The supreme court ruled on 5 April that the import ban on Taimi ’o Tonga was "illegal." But half an hour later, the privy council re-issued its ban. The newspaper’s owner decided on 23 April to appeal against the second ban to the supreme court. The judges issued their verdict on 26 May: the ban was "unconstitutional" and the sale of the newspaper in Tonga was legal. The next day, 2,000 copies of Taimi ’o Tonga were flown to Tonga for the first time in three months. Hundreds of people waiting on the streets of the capital for it to come out. But customs officers seized all the copies on their arrival at Nuku’Alofa airport, claiming they were awaiting instructions from the cabinet.
Moala suspected the government was planning a new legal manoeuvre to keep his newspaper out of Tonga and to get round the ruling of the supreme court, headed by British judge Gordon Ward. His lawyer filed a complaint claiming that the confiscation of the newspaper by the customs constituted "contempt of court." Hundreds of more copies were sent to Tonga from Auckland during the next two weeks but they were all seized by the customs in defiance of the supreme court’s injunctions. It was only on 14 June that copies that were several weeks out of date appeared on news stands in the capital, after four months of bans.
During a visit to Fiji in early March, Queen Halaevalu Mata’aho of Tonga described the dress of two journalists covering her visit as "insulting and disrespectful" because they were not wearing ties and ta’ovala, a woven skirt around the waist. Royal protocol officials said journalists, like everyone else, should kneel before the king and queen, keep their heads lowered in the presence of other members of the royalty and nobility and never look them in the eye.
The state-owned radio and TV broadcaster announced on 2 April that two journalists and three human rights activists were to be prosecuted for contempt of court because of a debate about the ban on Taimi ’o Tonga that was broadcast by the privately-owned Oceania Broadcasting Network. Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement representatives Lopeti Senituli, Rev. Seimote Vea and Ofa Simiki, together with journalists Sangster Saulala of Oceania Broadcasting Network and Tavake Fusimalohi had questioned the legality of the ban. The case had not yet come to trial at the end of the year.
The king’s privy council on 4 April adopted an "extraordinary supplemental ordinance" to the press law banning anyone from "publishing, selling, reproducing, distributing, possessing or importing" a banned publication. Importing included receiving by e-mail. The royal decree specifically targeted the biweekly Taimi ’o Tonga, which had been banned since February, and stipulated that offenders could be jailed for up to two years. In order to "protect the king, the royal family, the government and the people from press freedom abuses," the police were authorised to search and detain any suspect without a court warrant.
The government proposed constitutional amendments to parliament at the start of June. One of the amendments restricted freedom of expression for matters affecting "cultural traditions." The government wanted to have the power to control the content, publication and sale of both print and electronic news media. Another amendment deprived the courts of the power to review a decision or law of parliamentary or governmental origin. The proposals set off a storm both in Tonga and the surrounding region. New Zealand’s foreign minister Phil Goff said they threatened the rule of law and press freedom and dispatched a diplomat to discuss them with the Tongan authorities on 5 June. New Zealand’s ambassador met with the king and asked him to withdraw the proposals. The proposed amendments were passed on their first reading in mid-August. Some 10,000 people (about 10 per cent of the entire population) demonstrated on the streets of the capital against the amendments on 6 October. The protesters, who included Tonga’s Catholic bishop and independent journalists, presented a petition to parliament. But parliament went ahead and adopted the amendments on 16 October, with three members of the nobility voting against them. The king signed them into law on 5 December. They validated the ban on Taimi o’ Tonga after the fact.
On 31 July, parliament approved the Media Operators Bill restricting the importation of publications and foreign ownership of the news media. The biweekly Taimi ’o Tonga and its editor Moala, a US national, were directly targeted. The bill had been rejected by parliament in June as a result of an alliance between the democratic group and some of the nobles. The king ratified the Media Operators Act and the Newspaper Act in December. Together these two press laws gave the government extensive powers over the press.