Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today criticised King Taufaahau Tupou IV of Tonga for signing constitutional amendments and reintroducing press laws on 5 December that allow his government to maintain a ban on the independent newspaper Taimi o' Tonga.
The king's actions posed a serious threat to free expression and represented a huge step backwards for press freedom, the organisation said. It was very regrettable that the Tongan authorities had gone so far as to amend the constitution just to keep blocking distribution of Taimi o' Tonga, which is produced in New Zealand.
Reporters Without Borders called on the Tongan prime minister, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, to convince the king to reverse these decision and allow the newspaper to circulate freely.
In view of the seriousness of the situation, the organisation also announced that it will ask the European Union authorities to apply provisions of article 96 of the Cotonou Convention, which envisage sanctions in case of failure to respect "human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law." Tonga is a signatory to the convention.
The constitution used to guarantee free expression. The amendments signed by the king on 5 December served to retroactively validate a February ban on Taimi o' Tonga, which the Supreme court had ruled unconstitutional in May.
The king also approved the reintroduction of two press laws, the Newspaper Act and the Media Operators Act, which give the government extensive powers including to grant publication and import licences.
These amendments and press laws eroding the principle of an independent press were approved in October by a parliament with 30 members, of whom 21 are named by the king. The constitution will henceforth allow the authorities to ban a news media if it violates "cultural traditions or the right to private life."
Taimi o' Tonga editor Kalafi Moala, who lives in New Zealand, said free expression had completely ceased in Tonga. The constitutional amendments will allow the authorities to ban distribution of other foreign publications, as well as Taimi o' Tonga.