By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’ionetoa scolds and mocks a young female journalist for asking questions he does not like in an email exchange. He tells her she’s a “school repeat and stop asking nonsense” after she inquired about a valid issue. Other journalists have reported similar treatment from the Prime Minister when they run stories or ask questions on issues that he dislikes.
Angry and annoyed with the kind of questioning from a young journalist who used to be Chief Reporter at TBC, Prime Minister Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa emailed Salamo Fulivai telling her off in Tongan language (hereby translated):
“Stop the nonsense, the meaningless questioning, like your leading questions that shows how many times you’ve had to repeat Class 6. Like your questions on Kacific (the satellite company Government alleged to be owing money to). Waste of my time on meaningless questions.”
The reference that reporter Salamo Fulivai must have had a multiple repeat of Class 6, is a Tongan language mockery aimed at people with inference they are uneducated, unintelligent, and in fact, just plain dumb.
Not only was it inappropriate for a Prime Minister to address someone like Salamo as he did, who was just trying to do her job; but as a father figure he was completely out of line to talk down and ridicule a young woman, young enough to be his daughter.
But that was not the first time the Prime Minister did that. It was in June this year when he emailed Salamo, who had been suspended from Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC), and was now working for Kele’a Voice, FM 91.5. But whether Salamo was working for TBC or Kele’a Voice, it is shown on record there was not an amicable relationship between the reporter and the Prime Minister.
When Salamo was working as Chief Reporter at TBC, he used to react to her questions by telling her: “How can you ask questions that are illogical.” This was his reactions to normal questions asked of him for clarification of Government policies and positions on certain things.
In an email in December 2019, he said: “I am telling you to stop wasting time. Go do something useful…” And then later in reaction to questions emailed him, he emailed back: “It’s time you stop this nonsense… where did you learn news reporting?”
“It’s like you are fishing for information, so that if I was not careful, I would give the wrong information and then gets blamed for it,” the Prime Minister emailed Salamo. “Stop this kind of behavior for it’s not good… it will be bad for you. It shows you are not qualified enough for your position or worst, there is bad faith.”
Whenever the Prime Minister is unable to answer a question, it seems quite the pattern of behavior for him to react and strike out at the person who raises the questions, bringing undue and often false criticism of that person.
But the Prime Minister’s dominant attitude to media or any journalist trying to get the truth from him is reflected in this email to Salamo: “Do you think I have nothing else to do but answer questions… stop the nonsense.”
Salamo’s response to the Prime Minister concerning his “Class 6 repeat mockery” not only reflected a mature response from someone just trying to do her job, but also exposes the kind of harassment and authoritarian abuse that is common place in Government hierarchies.
She wrote back to the Prime Minister:
“Thank you, Hon. Prime Minister, for the information. Your reference to multiple repeats of Class 6 is reflected in the kind of language someone uses to communicate to someone else. I think I may have helped you with your response, for your answer could have simply be a ‘yes or no’ to the request. For you to divert to something else and to use such language makes your state of mind questionable, and the social environment and the way you have been raised is also in question.”
Salamo ended her email by saying: “Thank you for your help ‘faifekau’ (Tongan for religious minister).
Salamo is not the only one who has experienced this kind of treatment from the Prime Minister, not only as a journalist seeking accuracy in telling the stories of what is happening in Tonga, but also as someone who may have had a different viewpoint about current issues from the Prime Minister.
She is now working for a media platform run by PTOA, a political group that is in opposition to the Prime Minister and his People’s Party, even though he was part of PTOA just over a year ago. In fact, the Prime Minister would not have been in Parliament without his PTOA association in the 2014 election.
But despite what or who Salamo works for, she does not deserve the belittling treatment she gets from the Prime Minister. She is subject, like any other Tongan, to just and fair treatment, especially from a Government that claims to espouse Christian teaching and behavior. So far, there is something amiss about the claim for moral correctness and the accompanying behavior pattern.
One thing is certain though about this Prime Minister, his attitude about media is far more paranoiac than the previous Prime Minister. He has his own ‘pet media’ to which he gives information freely and talk to frequently, and then there are those he discriminates against, and withhold information from.
He is also known to have given out inaccurate information since he became Prime Minister, and also known for giving misleading statements. And in a number of cases he has been known to lie, and falsely attack those who question him.
And so the Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’ionetoa has in his short time as Prime Minister (a year and a half) become very controversial in relation to his treatment of others, and his behavior as a leader and especially a religious minister.
There is a lot coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office that includes threats against those in the Civil Service who may express dissenting views on social media; and also those who may speak or give out “sensitive information.”
In a social and political environment where corruption has been identified as a major impediment to growth and development, crime keeps rising, social issues are unresolved, and a major social shift is taking place. This is a shift away from the center of Biblical morality to more of a situation ethical pattern of living that is more culturally and humanistic driven.
But there are those who unconditionally support him just as there were those who unconditionally supported the previous Prime Minister. But the reality of Tongan society has moved on. It is no longer an issue between two groups or two parties battling it out politically. No, not at all. The issues are far more important and deeper than that.
PTOA or PAK are no longer the two options for political involvement. The real issue is finding good leadership. Those who not only have moral character but also the competence to govern, are those that should be in place of leadership in the Executive branch of Government. By the next election, it is going to be the independent, character-based candidates who practice what they preach, that would have the greatest pull and support of Tongans.
Salamo and her two colleagues, Soni Tu’iniua and Setita Tu’i’onetoa, have been suspended from TBC for charges of breaching the public enterprise’s rules of performance. They were suspended in January of 2020.
On 29 October, the controversial three have received notification from the Tonga Broadcasting Commission they are terminated from their employment.
This is the subject of the next article on the Prime Minister and his handling of dissent. The questions loom: do we treat those who disagree with us harshly and unjustly, and those whom we agree with gently and fairly?