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Tonga Islands 6 March 2002

Journalist charged with libel

Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders -RSF) protested today about the indictment for libel of the editor of the Times of Tonga, Mateni Tapueluelu, and the charging of one the paper’s journalists, Laucala Pohiva, with using forged documents."These moves are part of continuing attempts to muzzle the country’s only independent newspaper," RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to Tonga’s justice minister Aisea Taumoepeau. He called on the government to stop harassing the paper.

RSF learns that editor Tapueluelu was charged on 4 March with libelling the king after the paper had reprinted an article from the January issue of Kelea, the newsletter of the Kele’a democracy movement, which reported that the king had a private fortune of more than $350 million, some of it transferred to foreign tax havens through a Japanese businessman, according to documents published in the newsletter.The Tonga government at first denied the allegations, but the king then yielded to media pressure and admitted he had a bank account in Hawaii. Tapueluelu, who said he reprinted the newsletter article on grounds of public interest, will appear in court in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa. Laucala Pohiva, who was accused of using forged documents, is the daughter of Akilisi Pohiva, a human rights campaigner and editor-in-chief of Kelea who was arrested on 25 February at his home in Nuku’alofa along with his son and another politician. His family said the house was searched and papers confiscated. He was freed after five hours but the two other men were charged with using forged documents. Akilisi Pohiva had been arrested in 1996 with the Times of Tonga’s managing editor, Kalafi Moala, and journalist Filokalafi ’Akau’ola and jailed for a month for "insulting parliament." However, the supreme court ruled soon afterwards that such an offence did not legally exist in Tonga.

Since 1996, the Times of Tonga has been under pressure from the government, which considers it linked to the country’s pro-democracy movement. On 22 January this year, supporters of the monarchy circulated a petition calling for the paper to be banned. According to editor Tapueluelu, the Kotoa movement, a group set up last year which is fiercely loyal to King Taufa’ ahau Tupou, was behind the initiative. Kotoa accuses the newspaper of being crude and disrespectful, says it creates a bad image of Tonga and charges that its reporting of events threatens the social order. It adds that the paper makes a lot of money but fails to constructively support the monarchy.


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