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Brian Cloughley: Media Tales From South Pacific

Op-Ed: Media Tales From The South Pacific

By Brian Cloughley
Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Tonga's form of governance can be described as a benevolent regal autocracy. Saudi Arabia with freedom for women and no religious police, perhaps. Or a more genial version of any of the Gulf States. The king is, well, King . . .

There are ructions and dramas round the world in the newspaper business. In Italy its sleazebag prime minister, Berlusconi, influenced the exit of the best editor in the country and in Saudi Arabia there were similar machinations to force out the liberal Jamal Kashoggi from the daily al Watan. In America the top boys of the New York Times fell on their swords because one of their reporters fabricated stories for years. In London a high-circulation tabloid is being investigated for paying pots of money to a man who then made up a juicy tale about kidnapping a footballer, and in America the Federal Communications Agency has acted bizarrely by encouraging media monopolists to thrive, thereby ensuring excellent publicity and much cash for the Bush election campaign.

In Zimbabwe independent newspapers are under threat, and in Burma they don't exist. Mind you, they don't exist in lots of countries, although there isn't an enormous moral difference between being banned by governments and being mouthpieces for a tiny number of unprincipled greedheads. But the virus of press control appears to have spread even to the South Pacific.

One of the more delightful out-of-the-way places I have been fortunate to visit is the Kingdom of Tonga, a group of some 200 tiny islands with Australia 2000 miles west and South America even further east. Its population is about 110,000, and all sentient citizens are literate. Its exports are minimal and imports high, so it receives an annual subsidy from New Zealand of about three million US dollars.

My wife and I stayed with the head of mission of a country I shall not name but which might be easy to guess as there were only five permanent diplomatic representatives in the capital, Nuku'alofa. These dignitaries included the Taiwanese ambassador with whom none of the others was allowed to speak, in deference to the People's Republic of China, which reduced the diplomatic social circle. The number of foreign missions has not changed, but the PRC has replaced Taiwan, which is an interesting development of its kind.

The reason I write about Tonga is that King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has banned distribution of a foreign-owned and produced newspaper, the Taimi ‘o Tonga. Its publisher is an American citizen, Mr Eakalafi Moala, who lives in New Zealand from where copies of his Tongan language paper are (or were) flown twice a week to the country that bears its name. One might think this a trifle strange, but the reason is not difficult to determine: Mr Moala detests the Tongan monarchy and wants it overthrown, after which, no doubt, there would be representation by terribly decent elected people from whose honesty, diligence, impartiality and world-class expertise in administration the Tongan people would immediately benefit.

Tonga's form of governance can be described as a benevolent regal autocracy. Saudi Arabia with freedom for women and no religious police, perhaps. Or a more genial version of any of the Gulf States. The king is, well, King, and what he says goes. Mr Moala greatly objects to this and is perfectly entitled to do so in his newspaper providing propriety is maintained.

Tonga is a truly delightful place with pleasant people, lovely scenery, and an equable tropical climate apart from the occasional cyclone. It is perhaps best known by my generation for its previous monarch, Queen Salote, a woman with an acute sense of humour (not always to the fore in the Tongan personality) and an informal dignity that added lustre to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth fifty years ago.

In the procession she was in a horse-drawn carriage with a small man wearing a top hat who was somewhat extinguished by his more generously-proportioned neighbour. (Most Tongans are Big People.) She refused to have the hood raised over the carriage when it began to rain, and the British public lining the streets - in the rain - loved her for it. There is the possibly true story of the BBC commentator on the occasion, Richard Dimbleby, who is said to have asked a colleague who on earth was the tiny fellow in the top hat in the Salote coach and had the reply "It's probably her lunch".

The best lunch during my visit was on an islet where naughty lads of the 400-strong Tonga Defence Force were sent for a week or two to expiate their sins. The then commander of the Force, Fetu'utolu Tupou (now High Commissioner in London and sole Tongan diplomatic representative to the entire known world) invited us and the diplomatic corps (less Mr and Mrs Taiwan) to a modest banquet on this coral outcrop some hour's boat-chug from Nuku'alofa. It was idyllic and the three military convicts did not appear to be wholly repentant or downcast as they giggled engagingly while serving the dozen guests with a roast chicken apiece, followed by other enormous dishes. Tonga seemed delightful, and one could only admire the comparatively uncomplicated and seemingly contented lifestyle of its obviously well-fed citizens whose cholesterol levels must be terrifying.

There is no pretence of democracy in Tonga, but one wonders if this matters greatly in such circumstances. After all, there isn't even mention of the place in this year's Amnesty International report that castigates 151 governments, which is a fair indication of comparative serenity that would be the envy of countless millions. No torture; no detention without trial; no political prisoners; no death penalty. Amnesty says there were reports of "torture and ill-treatment by... state authorities in 20 [Asia/Pacific] countries: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Thailand" which is a pretty grim comment on the region.

But Tonga potters along in a relaxed fashion without torture or ill-treatment, and would continue to drift on quietly in a fairly contented non-democratic haze were it not for the movement fostered by Mr Moala to end the monarchy and replace one bunch of prominent individuals by another bunch of prominent individuals, duly elected. Why?

Will the citizens of Tonga be happier if democracy is imposed on them? Will there be an increase in their prosperity? It is difficult to see why the wheeling dealing of divisive politics should be forced on a people who patently wouldn't benefit one tiny bit from the ambitions of whatever band of busybodies wants to rule them. But probably it will happen, and there will be an end to the last untroubled paradise. Such is progress - and press freedom, of course.


- Brian Cloughley is a former military officer who writes on international affairs. His website is

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