By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’ionetoa has confirmed that his Government through the new media regulations issued, is targeting media, as well as anyone involved in giving out information that might breach the Communications Act 2015.
In a radio interview by journalist, Katalina Tohi, Mr. Tu’i’onetoa passionately defended the new regulations as a protection of abuse by media, giving information he termed “sensitive”, and punishing any unauthorized service by any media organization or person.
He was adamant that the regulations were meant to protect the people of Tonga from irresponsible media as well as those giving out false information that might damage anyone’s reputation.
But he was also unable to deny that whistle blowers and those within Government who leak out information to media are included in those targeted by the regulations.
In fact, the Prime Minister shifted any reference to whistle blowers but focused his anti-media attack wholly on those whom he claims to have abused their Constitutional right to free speech, by reckless communication of false information that “hurt people.” He did not just refer to those using social media, but included all media in his attack.
He even used the illustration of media being like a horse that needed to be roped in. “The media (or this horse) may operate freely within the sphere in which it is being roped, but may not venture irresponsibly beyond that,” said the Prime Minister.
“The exercise of freedom in accordance with our Constitutional rights is different from undisciplined, reckless and irresponsible behavior in communication,” he said.
The Prime Minister admitted that the Communications Act 2015 came to force in February 2016 by the Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of MEIDECC were members of that Cabinet. They were both instrumental in the passing of the Act, as well as the regulations issued to enable the application of the Act.
According to the Prime Minister the new regulations issued by his government in May 2020, based on the 2015 Communications Act, was simply a modification of the penalty amount issued by the Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva. The regulations issued have remained the same.
For example, Section 24 that deals with unlawful publication of sensitive information, the penalty imposed for breaching the older regulation was $10,000. This has been reduced to $2000 in the new regulation.
“There is no dispute to the rights to freedom of speech that is given by the Constitution, and as written, it cannot be changed forever,” Tu’i’onetoa said. “But what I am concerned about here is the rights and the freedom of the people.”
He claims that the rights of people have been severely breached by social and traditional media when information is published or broadcast may be false. “Many of these people hurt by media do not have the means to pursue their rights in court because they are unable to afford it,” he said.
Even in the previous Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva, which was known for using media to propagate their beliefs and points of view, there was much ado about any media or journalist who may have dissenting views. But never have there been a strong public attack by a head of Government against media as Prime Minister Tu’ionetoa gave in his recent interview.
One of the questions raised by journalists who are members of the Media Association of Tonga (MAT), was why the Government did not consult the media association on the media regulations? This Government has given strong indications up until now their wish to have a closer working relationship with Media.
Mr. Tu’i’onetoa claims that a communications release was issued to every media organization back in May 2020. Obviously, he is of the view that because there was no response, Media must have consented to the regulations.
The fact that the Prime Minister only came out publicly to defend the actions on the new regulations after the issue was raised by some media, meant he did not see the need for prior consultation, not even a public explanation of the new regulations when it came out. So much for accountability in Government.
In the interview, the Prime Minister also announced that a new Bill is going to be tabled in September when Parliament convenes again. This is the Reputation Act, which is again another legislation that aims at protection the rights of people to preserve their good reputation. It is also another proposed law intended to constrain media from any possible abuse of media freedom.
Much was said by the Prime Minister about the tendency in media, especially social media, to give out false information and lies. But nothing was said or intended to be done about the lies of politicians and the false information given by those in power.
It has become very apparent by the interview of the Prime Minister that this government, like previous governments, has chosen to take a strong stand against media freedom. But it is surely a strong message to journalists and media in general to refrain from any investigation and publication of material that may tarnish the reputation of anyone, whether it is true or not.
What is also most concerning to journalists is that laws often drafted to protect the rights of people from “an abusive media” are really aimed at protecting those in power (not the people) from transparency about their public lives and performance.