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Tonga 5 March 2004

Release on bail for democracy activist accused of distributing banned publication

Democracy activist Alani Taione was released on bail on 4 March, given back his passport and allowed to return to New Zealand, where he has lived since 1987.

Taione, who is accused of importing a banned publication into Tongo, is due to appear before the Supreme Court on 24 March. His release was conditional on him returning to Tonga for his trial.

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today condemned the arrest of pro-democracy activist Alani Taione for distributing about 20 copies of the banned news weekly Taimi ’o Tonga on his arrival on February 18th in Tonga from New Zealand, where he is a resident.

The organisation called on Tonga’s prime minister, Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, to release Taione immediately and drop the charges against him. "Taione’s arrest is a regrettable new phase in the gagging the independent press that was ordered by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV," Reporters Without Borders said.

A 38-year-old Tongan who has lived in New Zealand since 1987, Taione appeared before a judge today. He faces a possible prison sentence for importing and circulating a banned publication. Taimi ’o Tonga (which means Times of Tonga) is printed in New Zealand.

In open defiance of governmental censorship, Taione flourished a copy of the news weekly in front of customs officials when he arrived at Tongatapu airport yesterday and then handed out the other copies inside the airport. No one intervened at that moment but police arrested him a few hours later as he left his father’s funeral, which was the primary reason for his visit.

The government banned Taimi ’o Tonga on 26 February 2003, accusing it of having a "political agenda" and "unacceptable journalistic standards." It criticises the government and often carries reports about alleged corruption by the king and his close associates. After a long battle with the supreme court, the king had the constitution amended so that he could ban it permanently.

The adoption of two new laws in 2003, the Newspaper Act and the Media Operators Act, has enabled the government to restrict the number of licences for the privately-owned news media.

Since 31 January, the deadline for newspaper publishers to file their requests for a licence, the government had only approved requests from government and church newspapers. New Zealand’s foreign ministry has asked the government to reconsider its refusal to issue licences to at least three privately-owned publications.

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