By Josephine Latu: Pacific Media Watch
As World Media Freedom Day marks a strengthened drive towards free speech and a free press in the Pacific, some media editors in Tonga are more concerned with the alleged abuse of these rights.
A recent defamation case involving the Kele’a newspaper has focused public attention on the balance between media freedom and media responsibility in Tonga.
In late March, Tonga’s Supreme Court imposed a crushing fine of TOP$500,000 in damages on the pro-democracy newspaper Kele’a for defaming the Prime Minister, Dr Feleti Sevele, and his economic adviser Rob Solomon.
The newspaper was also told to run a front-page apology to the prime minister for six weeks.
The case involved a letter to the editor published in October 2007, making allegations about Solomon’s appointment to the prime minister’s office, and a July 2007 editorial making allegations about the prime minister over government loans from China.
A regional media freedom group, Pacific Freedom Forum, recently condemned the ruling as “excessive” and “draconian”, making the comparison that “on a per capita basis, the fine would be equivalent to a NZ$8.3 million judgment in New Zealand - an unheard of amount even for a much bigger country and economy".
However, Taimi Media Network head Kalafi Moala, who oversees both the Taimi ‘o Tonga and the Tonga Chronicle, as well as Talaki deputy editor Tevita Motulalo, disagree.
“If you’re going to say something is ‘excessive’, you have to go back to the offence and examine how excessive the offence was,” said Moala.
“We’re talking about two years of constant accusations and defamation.”
He believes Kele’a continues to violate other Tongans’ right to free expression by personally attacking those who do not hold the same political views in their newspaper.
Moala has also been accused by Kele’a of using government resources allocated for the Chronicle to benefit his independent newspaper, Taimi ‘o Tonga – an allegation Moala rejects.
Talaki’s Motulalo also applauded the judge’s decision, calling the ruling a “wake up call” for the press to be more cautious and accurate about what they print.
“Press freedom is related to the people’s right to know – not just to know any information, but the correct information,” he told Pacific Media Watch.
Pesi Fonua, president of the Tonga Media Council and editor of Matangi Tonga Online, said that there was always a possibility of abusing media freedom, although he pointed out that people should be allowed to make “fair comment” on public figures.
“With defamation you have to take it case by case. The Defamation Act needs to be looked at. It makes it difficult to differentiate who is a public figure,” he said.
However, acting director of the Friendly Islands Human Rights and Democracy Movement, and former publisher of Kele’a, Siosiua Po’oi Pohiva, said the lawsuit indicated the government was “desperate” and “out to crush” the newspaper.
He is one of three people named defendants in the lawsuit.
Pohiva defended the newspaper’s role to “provide an alternative perspective in the media and to look at things in a way that would benefit the people”, saying that most of the media in Tonga were “puppets” of the government.
“We’re afraid the quality of journalism in Tonga may be held back or threatened by money and power,” he said.
Pohiva believes the defamation case should have been struck out because the editor at the time, Tavake Fusimalohi, died in December 2007, thus preventing a fair investigation.
The court has placed the Kele’a under receivership, managed by accountant ‘Aisake Tu’iono. He has until May 15 to collect money from the defendants and come up with a report.
Josephine Latu is contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch at AUT's Pacific Media Centre.
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