Media fragmentation and growing influence of social media in Tonga

Members of Tonga Media photo credit: PINA/PAC News

By Kalafi Moala

Kalafi Moala, veteran journalist

13 September, 2020: In a dictatorship or under authoritarian rule, the role of media as a socio-political watchdog speaking truth to power is not of any significance. The role of media in these authoritarian societies is chiefly that of a propaganda tool for the ruling elite. This is the reality in socialist countries such as China, Russia, North Korea, Cuba, and many others. Dissent and critical scrutiny of those in power, and of society at large, is relatively absent. Those that have tried to perform their rightful duties as media have been severely persecuted, imprisoned, and some killed.

But even some countries that claim democracy to be their principal system of governance, have been known to give media a hard time, dishing out suppression to the point of disabling media to do its job. Some of these countries in the Pacific with checkered records have included Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, and Tonga.

Freedom guaranteed by the Constitution

 In Tonga, since 1875, media as such have been given a free hand in exercising their duty to society, but more so in theory than in practice. Clause 7 of Tonga’s Constitution declares, “It shall be lawful for all people to speak, write, print their minds and opinions, and no law shall be enacted to forbid this forever. There shall be freedom of speech and press forever. But this does not nullify the law relative to libel, and the law for the protection of His Majesty and the Royal Family.”

The work of media in Tonga has its underpinning by the freedom guaranteed in the Constitution. However, the Government of Tonga has at times over the past 50 years acted differently in its view and practice of media freedom. As a result, media have largely been a story-telling tool in accordance with whatever the Government’s narrative of that time.

But in 2010 when “more democratic” reforms were brought in to the kingdom, by amending the Constitution on the governance clauses, there was more hope of a free media being established firmly without harassment or manipulation by those in power.

Fragmentation based on political alignments

But after the 2014 election, when the late Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, took power in 2015, Tonga went through five years of a confused and troubled media. The fragmentation of media was a direct result of kowtowing to the political narrative that was driving the country into various socio-political interest groups.

It was no longer truth that mattered; what people believed took over the notion of what really mattered. Even if those beliefs were not based on facts.

The late Prime Minister was a man who had for over 30 years been an advocate of media freedom. But when he came into power, he was only interested in advocating freedom for ‘his media’ and for the media that was in support of his reckless narrative.

When fear becomes the driving force of reporting, media freedom ceases to matter anymore. And the “fear of man,” as scripture says, “will prove to be a snare.” (Proverbs 29.25) Fear of man attracts destructive behaviors of anger, hate, greed, and deception. Media driven by the fear of man is easily manipulated by greed and align themselves with the power arrangement that feeds their egotistical mindset.

Tonga’s media is still trying to recover from the turbulent times of the last several years. Some of the leaders of the current Government, including the Prime Minister, were in the Cabinet of the previous Government that had been strongly prejudicial against media with dissenting views, or media reporting stories that contradict the desired and assumed popular narratives.

The current media landscape in Tonga

Media in Tonga constitutes newspapers, radio and television, and established websites. These are what is commonly referred to as ‘traditional media’ –  they are the feeders of news information to the public. Most of the so-called traditional media are run by professional journalists. Tonga is blessed with the work of these professional journalists over many years.

Senior among these journalists are media operators such as Pesi Fonua and his wife Mary, who have run their Matangi Tonga website for almost three decades. The website has been the chief source of news for those overseas. Matangi Tonga has well trained staff of reporters.

Other senior journalists of many years include those with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, CEO Viola Ulakai, Nanise Fifita (now with Ombudsman), and Laumanu Petelo (who runs Radio ‘Le’o ‘o Tonga’ FM 88.1.), and Katalina Tohi, co-owner of Broadcom’s FM 87.5.

There are other effective journalists who may have moved on to other communication jobs. They include Sia Adams Parton, communications officer for Ministry of Police; Melemanu Bloomfield, who is now handling communications from the office of the Nobles; ‘Ofa Guttenbeill, activist and Director of the Women and Children Crisis Center (WCCC); Katrina Ma’u who runs her own consultancy service; Tevita Fa’uhiva, who handles communication at Tonga Skills.

It would take too much space to mention all those working in journalism in various media platforms. But there are a few who need mention. Tevita Motulalo is a freelance journalist of repute; Sione Taukapu is Editor of Kalonikali; Filo ‘Akau’ola is the proprietor and editor of Talaki Online; Siaosi Lavaka, Luseane Luani, Anolo Manu, and Melielau Manu of Radio 87.5; Setita Tu’i’onetoa, Soni Tu’ineau, and Salamo Fulivai (all formerly of TBC) are with  Kele’a and Kele’a Voice; Tonga Fonua and Sione Hia of Kakalu ‘o Tonga.

Print is not dead in Tonga

Newspapers have been the most traditional printed media in Tonga. There are four newspapers currently published and distributed in Tonga: Kakalu ‘o Tonga (published out of New Zealand by ‘Ulu’alo Po’uhila) is the leader among all; Taimi ‘o Tonga published by Keitahi Ltd; Kele’a published by Pohiva family and PTOA political party, and Kalonikali published by ‘Etuate Lavulavu and Tonga People’s Party Inc.

Newspapers that have recently gone out of print are Talaki and Tonga Ma’a Tonga. Both of these newspapers have gone online by each establishing a website.

Despite decline in newspaper readership, there is still high demand for news in print, proving that ‘print is not dead’.

FM Radios, the mainstay of broadcasting

The biggest and arguably most powerful media in Tonga is radio broadcasting. There is only one AM broadcasting operated by the Government owned Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC).

But FM Radio is the mainstream of broadcasting in Tonga. There are six established FM stations in Tonga: TBC’s FM 90; FM 87.5 owned by Broadcom Ltd.; FM 88.6 owned by the Ramanlal family; FM 88.1 owned by Keitahi Ltd; Kele’a Voice and Mate Ma’a Tonga are also active FM stations.

Television as a medium has not changed much over the years, simply because of lack of innovation in programming. The two main TV broadcasting is by TBC – Television Tonga – and Digicel, but Christian TV is also on air operated by DBN.

Social Media

Social media is here to stay and has a significant role in influencing society’s way of disseminating news and information. Social media ‘influencers’ are a growing trend of individuals who shape and form the narrative of online news in various social media platforms.

This revolutionary tool has proven effective in accomplishing the following:

1) Allows anybody or everybody who can access online communication as an information source and producer, without too much care to the quality of the information given.

2) Provides immediate access and dissemination of information with the capability of exponential multiplication to what is commonly called “going viral.”

3) Creates a feeling of euphoria and maybe a mythical sense of self significance and freedom in communicating whatever one believes is important.

Websites, young and old

The most established website hosted in Tonga is the Matangi Tonga.  It is an English language website, and arguably the greatest source of news for Tongans (and others) overseas. Matangi Tonga is independent in its news and information reporting, and has no political alignment.

The second most prominent website is the English language Kaniva News hosted and based out of New Zealand. The producer/editor is Kalino Latu, who was aligned with the previous Government and PTOA.

The Nepituno website is hosted and operated out of Tonga by Dr. Viliami Latu, and has been part of the opposition alliance against the former later Prime Minister and his PTOA party.

Other websites hosted and operated out of Tonga are the Talaki Online and Tonga-ma’a-Tonga. Talaki is a right leaning media, more conservative in its coverage. Tonga-ma’a-Tonga is an opposition media that came into being during the ‘Akilisi Pohiva term of Government, and strongly opposed to PTOA.

One of the newer websites that have become prominent and is making a social impact is the Fangongo Media Watch, hosted and operated out of the United States. Producer and Editor is ‘Ana Tausinga, originally from Ma’ufanga. Despite its critical scrutiny of things in Tonga, this website has an independent stance, and is not aligned to any political side.

Front runners of the political divide

The former Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva had the Kele’a newspaper as its main tool for information dissemination. It has been Pohiva’s main tool for communication in his years as an opposition leader. It was also PTOA’s weapon of ‘mass destruction’ to anything that stands in the way of Pohiva’s reform agenda. And now there is an FM Radio, Kele’a Voice, that adds to the PTOA armory.

On the other hand is the Kalonikali, which is the information weapon of the Tonga People’s Party Inc. (TPPI), with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, ‘Etutate Lavulavu. It is also the Government’s main tool of dissemination of propaganda to the public. The Prime Minister is the Chairman of TPPI, owner of the Kalonikali. There are also plans for the launching soon of an FM station for TPPI.

But is there really that much of a difference between the previous Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva and the current Government of Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa? The wide range of opinions spelled out on social media is as interesting as is confusing. But that is what happens when there is media fragmentation.

Part II will follow: Media as a tool of social development or destruction!




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