The first step in the process came a month ago, when the authorities in this Polynesian archipelago appointed Tevita Tu’i Uata, an ally of Prime Minister Samuela ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, as the new chairman of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC), which oversees two state TV channels and two state radio stations.
It was the new chairman who then sidelined TBC chief editor Laumanu Petelō and news manager Viola Ulakai. They learned last week that he had transferred them to the marketing and sales department.
Their lawyer, Clive Edwards, says the transfer is not only illegal, because it violates their contracts, but also dangerous “because of the attitude of this chairman, who uses his position for campaigning.” Edwards accuses of the government of “trying to control the media” ahead of the general election called for 16 November.
“Ever since it took office in late 2014, the Pōhiva administration has been trying to intimidate those within the TBC who don’t toe the line,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The prime minister needs to understand that public service broadcasting does not mean government propaganda. If guarantees of media independence are not given quickly, international bodies, including the Commonwealth, will have to reconsider the aid they provide to Tonga.”
The Pōhiva administration has initiated several legal actions against Petelō and Ulakai in the past three years, and Ulakai was suspended in April 2015 on the recommendation of the minister of public enterprises for asking the prime minister “too many tough questions.”
The state media, he noted, wanted to have the same freedom as all the other media in Tonga. “But,” he added, “they should understand there is a basic difference between a private media and government media. Their main role, to me, is to facilitate the work of the government.”
The prime minister went on to say that the TBC’s operations would be “reviewed” in the coming months.
The Kingdom of Tonga is ranked 49th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, after falling 12 places in the space of a year.