Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. Since the first democratic elections in 2010, the independent media have progressively grown into the role of holding the government to account. However, some political leaders do not hesitate to go after reporters who embarrass them.
The print press is virtually non-existent in Tonga, an archipelago of scattered islands. The state-owned Tonga Broadcasting Commission has taken up the baton, with Television Tonga and Radio Tonga broadcasting under the slogan “Call of the Friendly Islands”. As for online media, the landscape is dominated by the Matangi Tonga portal and the New Zealand-based Kaniva Tonga.
On this small archipelago of 100,000 inhabitants, the state of freedom of the press depends directly on changes in the political arena. The reelection of former Prime Minister Samiuela ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s party in the legislative elections of November 2017 took place in an environment of growing tensions with journalists. This was especially the case at TBC where two top editors were sidelined under government pressure. The December 2021 inauguration of Prime Minister Siaosi ʻOfakivahafolau Sovaleni marked a new phase for Tongan journalists, who continue to await concrete commitments that would allow them to do their jobs with full professional independence.
The Constitution guarantees press freedom, but its enforcement has been rather erratic. The decade that followed the democratic surge of 2010 was notable for a constant toughening of laws affecting the media. In 2015, the government created an internet regulatory agency authorised to block sites without a judge’s warrant. The law against internet crimes provides for a three-year prison sentence for cyber-harassment, even in the absence of a clear definition of the crime. More recently, the Ministry of Information and Communications quietly adopted eight draconian regulations against the press. In substance, they penalise the dissemination of so-called “sensitive” information and protect political figures.
Tongan media are faced with a highly volatile economic situation. Under the threat of financial collapse, some journalists see themselves forced into self-censorship for fear of angering advertisers, with the government first among them. The situation worsened in the early 2020s: in addition to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tongan media’s infrastructure was devastated by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and the ensuing tsunami on 15 January 2022.
Over the past decade, Tonga has made progress on issues involving women’s rights and their role in and at the helm of the media. But some topics are still taboo, such as torture at the hands of law enforcement, abolition of the death penalty and the persistence of child marriage.
Journalists are not worried about being in any physical danger when on the job, and they are relatively unaffected by the possibility of prosecution. Nevertheless, beneath the surface lie significant issues of self-censorship in a community that easily closes ranks. Amid a difficult economic situation, many journalists worry above all about their financial survival. The Media Association of Tonga plays a key role in defending press freedom.