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Tonga Kingdom Faces Media Laws Legal Challenge

Kingdom Faces Legal Challenge Over Media Laws

AUCKLAND (North & South/Pacific Media Watch): In the wake of the Tongan government denying operating licences to dissenting publications, a New Zealand magazine journalist has warned that the Pacific kingdom will soon face an "extraordinary" lawsuit over the constitution.

Hannah Sperber, writing in North and South magazine, said "any day now" New Zealand constitutional and civil rights lawyer Dr Rodney Harrison, QC, would file proceedings with the Tongan courts on behalf of more than 100 Tongans.

She quoted Kalafi Moala, Auckland-based publisher of Taimi 'o Tonga, one of the newspapers that have been denied a licence under Tonga's new media laws, as saying:

"We're seeking a judicial review of the amendment of the constitution. It'll be a historic case."

Recently visiting Tonga to research her nine-page article, "Silence in Paradise", Sperber said anticipation was building in the kingdom over the case.

The joint plaintiffs - church leaders, editors, businesspeople and ordinary Tongan citizens - plan to sue the government on the premise that the 2003 constitutional changes were unconstitutional.

Sperber reported that the case was being organised by seven of the nine elected commoner representatives in Parliament, led by pro-democracy MP 'Akilisi Pohiva, publisher of the feisty Kele'a newsletter.

Published fortnightly since 1986, the newsletter has joined Taimi and Matangi Tonga on the government's list of prohibited publications.

"As Tonga's most popular elected politician - at the last five elections he received more votes than any other candidate - and with the backing of most of the people's elected MPs, Pohiva is confident he moves with the mandate from the Tongan people," wrote Sperber.

Among the wide range of Tongans interviewed for her article, she quotes Tonga's "media nemesis", Police Minister Clive Edwards, who chaired the cabinet subcommittee that drafted the new laws.

"'You'll find that in the Taimi, everything is about the minister of police,' he spits. 'Everything.'

"'They even had a cartoon of me, sitting there with the king [Taufa'ahau Tupou IV] at my right hand and the prime minister at my left, and I was sitting there as the King of Tonga.

"'That's how they attack me. They ridicule me. What did I do? to hell with them.'

"Following the Taimi on Edwards' list of pet peeves are meddlesome New Zealand politicians."

Sperber wrote that no matter how innocuous Taimi seemed to be, it "represents the vanguard of a free press for Tonga. And Tonga's leaders don't want a free press."



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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