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Tongan Government commits to Freedom of Information Policy

"Tongan Government commits to Freedom of Information Policy and an Anti-Corruption Commission"

13 February 2012

[Nuku’alofa, 13 February 2011] – Members of the Tongan Government, public service, civil society and media came together in Nuku’alofa today to discuss the Government’s proposal for a national Freedom of Information (FOI) policy. The policy is a key step in the Government’s push towards greater accountability as part of its ongoing democratic reform process.

“Today, Tonga moves towards enhancing its commitment to participatory democracy. Over the next few days, we expect you to review Tonga’s proposed policy on freedom of information, disseminate it, discuss it in your communities and provide relevant feedback to our Cabinet Steering committee, so that it can be finalised and implemented. The Government is strongly committed to more open government”, said Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister, Honourable Samiu K Vaipulu, at the opening of the National Consultation on Tonga’s FOI policy today. Hon Vaipulu is also the Chairman for the Cabinet Steering Committee for the Freedom of Information policy.

At the opening session, the Minister of Justice and Public Enterprises, Hon Clive Edwards, also announced a crucial new accountability initiative of the Government, telling participants of Cabinet’s recent decision to re-establish a national Anti-Corruption Commission. Legislation to establish the Commission was passed in 2007, but the Government has now committed to appointing a new Commissioner and providing resources to set up the new office. This initiative is likely to be pursued in tandem with implementation of the Freedom of Information Policy.

Ms Alisi Taumoepeau, the former Minister for Justice and Attorney General for Tonga was one of the facilitators at the consultation. She was very positive in her review of these initiatives. “I congratulate the Government on their commitment to these two very important issues which have been vexing in Tonga for some time. The Government is cultivating the trust of the people by introducing its FOI policy, and it is promoting integrity by initiating the implementation of the Anti-corruption Commission Act. We all look forward to the timely implementation of these important initiatives.”

Work on the new FOI began in late 2011. In November 2011, when launching the new Radio Mast for the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, Lord Prime Minister Tu’ivakano highlighted that a Freedom of Information policy would be an important framework in the ongoing development of the information infrastructure of Tonga.

The development of the FOI Policy has been guided by a national Steering Committee, managed by the Ministry of Information and Communication. The Steering Committee has been supported by the Commonwealth Pacific Governance Facility and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The proposed FOI Policy appears likely to be very progressive in nature. A guiding principle of maximum disclosure has been adopted by the Steering Committee, and exemptions will be harm based and subject to a public interest test.

Mr Pesi Fonua, President of the Tongan Media Council reiterated that “When the government is deciding what information should be released and what should remain exempt, it should always apply that ‘public interest’ test. The issue of the ‘public interest’ basically refers to information held by government which is of such importance that it will affect the decisions and day-to-day lives of the Tongan people.”

At the conclusion of the consultation, Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Information and Communication, Mr. Paula Ma’u, confirmed that the public has until 5 March 2012 to provide feedback on the FOI Policy Discussion Paper. The Ministry then plans to finalise the Government in March before it is formally launched. The FOI Policy will then be the foundation for work on actual FOI legislation, which then entrench the legal right to information for all Tongans.

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