Trials of the "Tonga Three"

Thursday, October 17, 1996

TRIALS OF THE "TONGA THREE"

(Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 October 1996) Freedom of the press faced a serious test recently in the Kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago of some 169 islands in western Polynesia, east of the Fiji Islands.

On 20 September 1996, Kalafi Moala, editor of the New Zealand-based Times of Tonga newspaper, deputy editor Filokalafi 'Akau'ola, and member of Parliament (MP) Akilisi Pohiva, were found in contempt of Parliament and sentenced to 30 days in jail, to be served immediately. The decision was handed down because of the paper's publication of a notice of impeachment that had not yet been presented to Parliament. The motion, drafted by Pohiva, was intended to have the Justice Minister removed from office for allegedly collecting his daily allowance for house sessions, even though he was overseas leading Tonga's delegation to the Atlanta Olympic Games.

The Legislative Assembly, which passed the sentence, is dominated by unelected Ministers appointed by King Taufa'ahau Tupou and representatives of the kingdom's noble families.

MP Pohiva told the Assembly he had given the text of his impeachment motion to the Times of Tonga. Editor Moala told the Assembly the newspaper assumed that since Pohiva was an MP he had already submitted the motion. Although published in New Zealand, the Times of Tonga is circulated widely in the kingdom.

Press freedom groups around the world sprung into action at news of the jailings, led by the Pacific Islands News Association, the main professional body of the Pacific Islands news media. Through the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) Clearing House, PINA alerted the freedom of expression community to the case, and a PINA representative flew from Fiji to Tonga to deliver an appeal to the King. Meanwhile, groups like the CCPJ, PEN's Writers in Prison Committee, the World Association of Newspapers and many others faxed letters to protest that journalists could be charged with criminal libel and imprisoned without a trial.

Missing the Point

The Tongan authorities seemed to miss the point that only draconian press laws convict and imprison journalists and writers for their words, and that they should only ever be tried in civil court, never in criminal court. While declaring that press freedom had always been a reality in Tonga, Eceta Fusitu'a, Deputy chief secretary to Cabinet, said that "this is not an issue of press freedom; it is Moala's illegal use of the freedom of the press." She added that the 30-day prison term was not draconian, stating that "a journalist is subject to the same laws as any citizen."

Still, the authorities reacted to the protests, sending fax after fax of explanation and justification, referring to the international protest as "Media Terrorism Against Tonga."

Released!

After serving 24 days of their 30-day terms for contempt of Parliament, the two journalists and the MP were released from prison on October 14. The Chief Justice of the Tongan Supreme Court ruled that the Legislative Assembly had breached several constitutional provisions in convicting the three men of contempt of Parliament, and ordered their immediate release.

And what about the Justice Minister whose impending impeachment caused the whole imbroglio? Parliament adjourned before the impeachment order could be introduced; he keeps his post until the next seating of Parliament in June 1997.

What you can do

For more information, contact the Pacific Islands News Association Freedom of Information Network, 46 Gordon Street, Suva, Fiji Islands, tel: +679 303623, fax: +679 303943

Although the journalists are now free, appeals can still be sent:

* pointing out that, under Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers"
* protesting against the jailing of journalists Kalafi Moala and 'Filokalafi 'Akau'ola and pointing out they were only doing their duty as journalists
* pointing out that even if the motion had not yet been submitted to the Legislative Assembly when the newspaper report was published, the jailing of the journalists was out of all proportion to the supposed offence and can only be seen as an attempt to intimidate the news media

Send appeals to:

His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou
The Royal Palace
Nuku'alofaHala
Kingdom of Tonga
Fax: (676) 24102

His Excellency Prime Minister Baron Vaea
Prime Minister's Office
Taufa'ahau
Kolofo'ou
Kingdom of Tonga
Fax: (676) 23888