Tonga: Comment - Free Speech Forever
FREE SPEECH FOREVER
By Pesi Fonua
'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'
NUKU'ALOFA (Matangi Tonga Online/Pacific Media Watch): It is nearly one year since November 2003 when Tongans lost their right to Freedom of Speech as a defence.
After last year's Constitutional amendment, Tonga went back 128 years to the days when people were allowed to speak or to express an opinion only if it was in line with that of their superiors or chiefs. In those dark ages they would be clubbed to death for freely expressing their opinions.
You may think that trying to restore the Dark Ages in the Tonga of the 21st century, was definitely not worth the effort, given the growing popularity of mobile phones, wireless internet connections, international news, five 24-hour television channels, and an increasingly mobile population. But strange as it may seem, some people thought they could turn the clock back. They tried and, of course, they failed.
The desire by government to control the expression of people's opinions after 128 years of free-thinking was just incredible.
Government, apparently in a state of blind fury, last year amended Clause 7 of the Constitution and introduced two suppressive pieces of media legislation, for no good reason other than to "control the media and to raise the standard of journalism."
Neither of these objectives were achieved. What the legislation did do was to smear the fine reputation and image of the Kingdom of Tonga, as a progressive, educated and a forward-looking monarchy in the South Pacific. It was the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of our government.
But Chief Justice Webster saved the day with his historical decision. In summing up his decision on 8 October, he said "ŠI found that both Acts were inconsistent with Clause 7 Š and therefore void in terms of Clause 82 of the Constitution. I very much regret having to make such a finding in relation to legislation, which has had the approval of the Legislative Assembly, the Cabinet, the Privy Council and His Majesty the King, but it is the clear duty of this Court under the Constitution to do so and thus to uphold the Constitution."
Chief Justice Webster painted a vivid picture of the essence of Freedom of Expression when he quoted Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Copyright © Vava'u Press Ltd 2004
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