Tongan prime minister launches attack on public broadcaster's independence

Tongan Prime Minister Samuela 'Akilisi Pohiva speaks to media at Government House on July 28, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Fiona Goodall

Tongan Prime Minister Samuela 'Akilisi Pohiva speaks to media at Government House on July 28, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand.

OPINION: Every weekday morning politicians front up on RNZ's Morning Report.

It is a rite of passage for them and identifies those ministers and party leaders who are on top of their brief and able to articulate and defend their policies and decisions under close questioning.

It leads to tense moments and occasional fireworks, as happened recently when New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and presenter Guyon Espiner clashed over immigration figures.

Imagine a world where robust questioning and the displeasure of politicians had dire personal consequences for the presenter, costing him his job and livelihood and sending a chilling message to other journalists.

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We are fortunate in New Zealand to have an independent news media and a political and legal system that supports freedom of expression. Each day journalists working in both public and commercial media exercise that sacred right to ask awkward questions and cause discomfort and worse among the political classes.

Things are quite different in the Kingdom of Tonga, a country to which New Zealand has strong and enduring ties.

This year Tongan Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva has launched a highly-effective attack on the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC), describing it as an "enemy of the government", targeting individual journalists and removing its chair Tapu Panuve and chief executive Nanise Fifita.

Pohiva is offended and annoyed by the public broadcaster's independence.

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Pohiva sees the TBC as "government property" that should do as it is told and support the interests of his government. According to Reporters Without Borders, last year he repeatedly called on it to suspend a journalist for asking him too many tough questions.

He says: "… Radio Tonga and Television Tonga's main role is best to facilitate government. But that doesn't mean that government stops TBC from criticising government but it must do it in a way that is not malicious."

This cuts against the grain for any public service broadcaster which, to be effective and trusted, must defend the interests of citizens, not politicians.

Indeed, an appetite for scrutinising the government and the strength to resist political interference – while responding appropriately to any legitimate complaints – are essential characteristics of any effective media outlet. And Pohiva's chaotic administration certainly demands such scrutiny.

The prime minister's seeming failure to grasp the importance of the TBC's editorial independence is disingenuous.

Pohiva leads the Democratic Party of the Friendly Isles and in the past he has campaigned for greater media freedom and paid a personal price for standing up to the authorities.

His convenient conversion to the camp of the thin-skinned propagandists is not just bad news for the TBC.

His targeting of the chair, chief executive and individual journalists will send a chill down the spine of all journalists in Tonga and make them think twice about challenging the Government.

The kingdom is a tough place to be an editor, reporter or media proprietor. They not only have to deal with the constant threat of law suits and heavy damages but also draconian new laws limiting online content.

Tonga is a fledging democracy with power uneasily shared between the monarch, nobles and elected MPs.

An independent news media sector that citizens trust will be a crucial ingredient in the country's future and is as vital as clean air and water in any functioning democracy.

The TBC is a member of the Public Media Alliance, the largest global association of public service media organisations. The PMA has written to both Pohiva and to the King of Tonga requesting that they respect the TBC's editorial independence.

New Zealand spends more than $20m a year in aid to the Pacific nation. As recently as last week Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee was warned of the risk of corruption in Tonga.

The warning was delivered by none other than Pohiva himself. If the prime minister wants to win this fight against corruption he should start by ensuring Tongan journalists are able to report freely without the authorities breathing down their necks.

Tonga has to find its own way through these challenges. But it is important to raise awareness within Tonga and in New Zealand of what is being done to the TBC.

As The Washington Post's Trump Era motto states – Democracy Dies In Darkness.

Paul Thompson is the CEO of RNZ and the president of the Public Media Alliance.

 - Stuff

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