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Asia-Pacific Network: 12 January 2003

MEDIA REVIEW 2002
PRESS FREEDOM IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC: TONGAN LAWSUIT WIN SPARKS OPTIMISM

At the mid-year launching of a new book, a leading Tongan newspaper publisher once jailed for contempt of Parliament in the autocratic South Pacific kingdom accused royal authorities of persecuting dissidents and independent news media. The outspoken publisher, Kalafi Moala, had a gloomy message about the future of media freedom in the Pacific. But by the end of the year, Moala was smiling after winning US$26,000 in damages against the Tongan government for being wrongfully jailed.

By DAVID ROBIE in Auckland


Feedback to the Toktok page

AT THE mid-year launching of a new book, a leading Tongan newspaper publisher once jailed for contempt of Parliament in the autocratic South Pacific kingdom accused royal authorities of persecuting dissidents and independent news media. The outspoken publisher, Kalafi Moala (left), had a gloomy message about the future of media freedom in the Pacific.

And he said in his book, Island Kingdom Strikes Back: The Story of an Independent Island Newspaper - Taimi 'o Tonga, the Tongan establishment had viewed a Supreme Court judgement six years ago freeing him and two fellow political detainees from their Parliament-ordered imprisonment as a "New Zealand conspiracy".

But by the end of the year, Moala was smiling and far more upbeat about the future for the region's journalists and news media. Understandable. Along with his colleagues, Moala had just won a total of US$26,000 in a damages court case against the crown for being jailed unconstitutionally.

Elsewhere in the region, 2002 involved brutal assaults and threats by the forces of law and order against journalists in Papua New Guinea, tensions over media coverage of the so-called Pacific solution on asylum seekers, post-coup strife in Fiji that included the trial of a journalist for treason, a daily newspaper strike in Fiji, and threatened lawsuits against media in PNG and the neighbouring Indonesian-ruled province of Papua.

Moala believes his successful lawsuit was a victory for Pacific news media. "It encourages [Tongan journalists] greatly," he said. "They need to keep doing their work in a professional manner and this case will become a warning to government."

He advised authorities not to continue harassing "those who are raising a critical voice in the country".

Moala was awarded nearly US$8000 by the Supreme Court while pro-democracy MP and publisher 'Akilisi Pohiva and former deputy editor Filokalafi 'Akau'ola were awarded US$9000 each. The three had filed a case against the government and Police Minister Clive Edwards for wrongful imprisonment over their month-long jail term in October 1996.

Now the Auckland-based publisher of the Taimi 'o Tonga (Times of Tonga) and a string of other Pacific newspapers, Moala says the monarchy does not tolerate criticism and scrutiny, and the country will not move forward without full democracy.

Failure to change could force the Tongan people to "rise up".

His book tells the tale of his independent newspaper's struggle for commercial and media independence. Tonga's establishment was "stung" by Chief Justice Nigel Hampton's ruling to free the detainees.

"Rumours abounded in Nuku'alofa that his ruling was the result of a New Zealand "conspiracy" aimed to get us out [of jail]. The judge was a New Zealander, much of the protest against our imprisonment had come from New Zealand and I was a New Zealand resident," Moala said.

Their imprisonment became a cause célèbre among journalists and civil rights advocates in the Pacific and some media freedom groups described them as the "Tongan three". The Commonwealth Press Union funded New Zealand civil liberties lawyer Barry Wilson to take up their case and seek their freedom with a writ of habeas corpus.

The three men walked free on 14 October 1996 after serving just three weeks of their 30-day sentence when the chief justice ruled that they had been detained illegally in violation of the constitution.

Moala said they wept with elation over their freedom.

"Tears were running down my face. They were tears of joy and rage, anger at the unjust treatment we had suffered at the hands of Tonga's Legislative Assembly," he recalled.

"After all the political turbulence associated with our 'trial' and imprisonment, the country's top judge had declared our jailing unconstitutional and unlawful."

Island Kingdom Strikes Back is the first political book by a leading South Pacific journalist and is an indictment of injustices carried out by the royal-backed authorities against dissidents in Tonga, particularly his own independent newspaper which has flourished as the pro-independence movement has grown.

Published in Auckland, Taimi 'o Tonga is now the leading Tongan newspaper and has spawned other papers in the Lali Communications group, including the weekly Samoan International, Cook Islands Star and the Indian Tribune.

The book cites many incidents of victimisation of independent media and political dissidents, including the arrest in February 1996 of journalist 'Akau'ola and two writers of letters to the editor published in the Taimi 'o Tonga and defamation writs designed to gag and ruin the newspaper.

Tonga is described as being "awash with scandals and scams - most, if not all, which [have] some connection to the monarch and royal-appointed government".

Among many examples, Moala cites the "probable loss of US$20 million invested by the Tonga Trust Fund in a high risk insurance scheme. Two ministers lost their job over the debacle ... The king and his kingdom became the international media's laughing stock".

Moala accused the royal family - headed by 88-year-old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, Crown Prince Tupuoto'a, 54, and his only daughter, Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita, 50 - of not taking responsibility for any of its "most outrageous blunders or scandals marring the kingdom's development.

"This concerned me because the kind of press coverage Princess Pilolevu sought for Tonga was devoid of criticism or any 'negative' reporting," he said.

But by the end of the year, Moala found things were definitely changing for the better

"We have found increasingly a lot more openness from government departments; government officials talk to us and this is a very encouraging sign indeed," he said. "I think much of this is due to the new prime minister in Tonga, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata."

Prince Lavaka is a younger brother of the Crown Prince, Tupouto'a. The Crown prince will inherit the throne when King Taufa'ahau dies.

An important factor in the new policy of openness was a seminar on the media for cabinet ministers and senior departmental officials organised by the Australian aid organisation AusAid, and led by Radio Australia executive producer of news and current affairs Sue Ahearn.

The success of both the lawsuit of Moala and his colleagues and his book focused attention on media freedom in the region more poignantly than any other incidents during the year. Moala's efforts were rewarded when he was presented with an inaugural Pacific Media Freedom Award in September.

The sprawling island nation of Kiribati faced harsh curbs on the media as the country braced for an election on November 29. Tougher newspaper laws and changes to parliamentary rules muzzled freedom of speech and the capacity of dissidents to question government and its policies.

State paranoia led to the government swallowing a spoof story about plans by the United States to "invade" Kiribati and the cabinet fired off a diplomatic protest.

The story, which led to the Office of the President issuing a series of public broadcasts assuring the population that the planned "invasion" was not true, was posted by spinner.co.nz, a satirical New Zealand website.

But the gagging of Kiribati's opposition MPs and fledgling independent media eventually backfired with authoritarian President Teburoro Tito being ousted from power.

The change of government opened the door to the country's first independent radio to begin broadcasting with the Ministry of Information approving its licence just three days before a legal challenge was due to be heard.

The owner of the new station, FM101, former president Ieremia Tabai, who also publishes the country's only independent newspaper, Kiribati Newstar, had been waiting four years for the licence. He said the ministry had been holding up the application without good reason.

Drunken militants in the Solomon Islands forced the country's only major newspaper to pay a cabinet minister US$1000 in compensation for reporting that he had been involved in a public brawl.

The paper has managed to publish regularly in spite of almost three years of civil war on the main Guadalcanal island, pitting indigenous locals against Malaita islanders.

Eight militants arrived at the Solomon Star office demanding payment. They were reportedly armed and drunk, but left their weapons outside.

Editor John Lamani was forced to pay up when the minister, also intoxicated, personally demanded the money.

A major issue facing the region was media representation of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people in coverage of Australia's "Pacific solution" and the quality of journalists' reporting of issues related to refugees and displaced people.

According to former Pacific Concerns Resource Centre (PCRC) journalist and researcher Nic Maclellan, media shaped public perception and the failure of journalists in checking facts during the Tampa affair and misrepresentation of about 1500 refugees in Pacific processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea had damaged the reputation of the asylum seekers.

"The negative stories and unchecked facts don't do justice to the refugees," he said.

In Papua New Guinea, prominent journalist and journalism educator Kevin Pamba was assaulted and threatened by heavily-armed police while Post-Courier investigative reporter Robyn Sela was assaulted and threatened by a rogue soldier when reporting in the public interest. Both were graduates of the first journalism school in the Pacific, the University of Papua New Guinea.

Pamba, a columnist for The National, had reported on how riot police destroyed a squatter settlement in the northwestern PNG town of Madang. The police had been brutally enforcing a court order obtained by the local provincial government.

After his report was published, about 20 policemen in full battle gear and fully armed drove to his Divine Word University campus several times searching for him. They finally seized him in Madang town and took him to a local police station for questioning.

"They threatened to beat me up while one of the policemen tried twice to slash my face with a pocket-knife," Pamba said, adding that he had feared for his life. "This happened in front of the passing public, a fellow journalist and some other policemen."

Pamba, who suffered bruises and cuts to his face and head, did not lay a formal complaint of assault against the police.

Robyn Sela had filed several reports for the Post-Courier as part of a campaign to expose the corruption plaguing Papua New Guinea. The newspaper hid Sela and her family in a safe house while she continued to face threats.

Visiting Australian investigative journalism educator Dr Stephen Tanner praised Papua New Guinean journalists, saying that they didn't get much recognition for the bravery they showed in the line of duty.

And, he said, the tough environment due to lack of capacity in institutions to protect them often resulted in constraints on information that "borders on self-censorship".

Former Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta threatened to sue The National, editor Yehiura Hriehwazi and former National Provident Fund (NPF) chairman Jimmy Maladina over corruption allegations implicating a fish marketing company, Delta Seafoods Ltd, owned by Morauta.

The allegations were published a day before the tabling of the NPF Commission of Inquiry Report in Parliament was due.

Maladina said he stood by "every word" attributed to him by the newspaper against Morauta and welcomed any court action.

"This time it will not be one of the kangaroo courts that he ran in the last two years - you have a defence," said Maladina, who is himself a lawyer.

Threats of litigation - with a US$1 billion lawsuit - also came across the border in the Indonesian-ruled province of Papua. The Indonesian military demanded an apology from the Washington Post, giving the paper a two-week deadline over its controversial report on November 19, or face the threatened suit.

The story had suggested that a shooting attack near Freeport mine in Papua on August 31 in which two Americans and one Indonesian were killed might be linked to a conversation among top Indonesian military commanders, including its chief-of-staff, Endiartono Sutarto.

The story cited an unnamed US government official and other anonymous sources who spoke of intelligence reports about the conversation. It carried a military denial that such a discussion took place.

In Fiji, a treason trial of journalist Josefa Nata and politician Ratu Timoci Silatolu was moved to closed court when defence counsel argued that disclosures in a parallel trial of Fijian nationalist Viliame Savu for misprision of treason had compromised their case.

The treason cases stem from an attempted coup by businessman George Speight in May 2000 when Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his parliamentary colleagues were seized hostage at gunpoint. Speight is now serving a life sentence for treason in the upheaval that ousted the Fiji Labour Party-led government and crippled the country's economy.

The trial of Nata, former coordinator of the media industry backed Fiji Journalism Institute who became Speight's publicist, strikes at the heart of press ethical debates.

But at the same time a judge struck out a prosecution attempt to bar the media from Savu's trial following "offending news reports".

When the United States rejected a visa application from Fiji's Assistant Information Minister Simione Kaitani in November, he claimed he had been "innocent" during the coup upheaval but a former cabinet minister described his statement as "laughable".

Deposed Women's Affairs Minister Lavinia Padarath said Kaitani's problem was " trivial compared to the 37 days -- 56 days for my [male] colleagues" they had spent as hostages in Parliament.

"Some of us were severely beaten up. It almost cost them their lives and what about the mental torture we all lived through?"

Kaitani had been named Education, Science and Technology Minister in putsch frontman Speight's government and he was featured in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners investigative TV programme Cyclone George supporting the coup.

Spin-doctoring and its implications for media independence faced several Pacific countries, especially with a revelation in Fiji during August that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase had spent more than F$79,000 on newspaper advertisements to publish his political speeches during 2001.

While Qarase's office claimed that only speeches of national interest would be advertised, Auditor-General Eroni Vatuloka said some were not in the public interest.

The news media in Fiji came under attack several times with one government senator describing journalists as "mad crazy loonies and stupid" who needed to be "trained, guided and directed".

In a bitter attack, Senator Mitieli Balaunauca called the media "Satan's agents" and said editors, publishers, reporters and announcers were racist and naive amateurs who were breaking down the fabric of life in Fiji.

Another government senator, Reverend Tomasi Kanailagi, former president of the influential Methodist Church of Fiji, branded The Fiji Times and Fiji One as "agents of evil".

The cleric's anger stemmed from media reports that the church's finances were not being properly audited. The Fiji Media Council, a body supporting self-regulation by the country's news organisations, condemned the criticism.

An intense debate arose in Fiji about the traditional practice of "tithing" and the financial burden this imposed on indigenous Fijians. The Fiji Times published scathing editorials criticising the system.

Rev Kanailagi claimed reports were slanted against indigenous Fijians because most reporters at The Fiji Times and Fiji One were Indian. In fact, most key editorial staff are indigenous Fijian.

"We sought to distinguish between willing donations and donations on demand. The Methodist Church in Fiji places unfair pressure on its flock to hand over money," said the Times.

Aid for news training was also an issue with a Fiji Times reporter being ordered out of an Ausaid-funded media workshop designed to "open up" communication between journalists and cabinet ministers in an incident that stunned local news people.

The newspaper said its reporter, Frederica Elbourne, had been banned from the workshop by an angry chief executive who was unhappy with her front page report about reporters being excluded.

Recruiting journalists from overseas is one of the options being considered by Michael Richards, a new Australian publisher of the Fiji Sun, to make up for what he says is a lack of skills and experience available locally.

"Few are trained properly; mostly simply learn from their colleagues and superiors, who in turn learned from their colleagues and superiors," Richards said.

Academic research at the regional University of the South Pacific has shown that 47 percent of Fiji journalists lack professional training and educational qualifications.

While three university based journalism schools are addressing this Pacific problem, some graduates choose other better paid career options when they leave campus.

Labour unrest and working conditions for journalists also posed a challenge for media freedom in the region.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) congratulated about 60 journalists and media workers at Fiji's Daily Post over their success during a four-week strike in November to win recognition for their staff right to collective bargaining through the Fiji Public Service Association.

Editorial and production workers had been pressing for better salaries and working conditions, alleging that the Post, in which the Fiji government maintains a 44 percent stake, had breached the country's labour laws by failing to pay them superannuation and other entitlements.

The Fiji government has dusted off a raft of media laws it plans to enact during 2003. While the government claims it supports deregulation of the media, Qarase has indicated in a Catch 22 statement that it should be regulated.

"I must stress that the government supports regulated deregulation," the Prime Minister told Parliament in October.

One bright spot for media freedom was publication of a new regional newspaper based in Vanuatu. Pacific Weekly Review brushed off distribution and marketing problems to tackle the region's economic, cultural, social and political challenges with a stylish blend of vigorous news reporting, attractive photojournalism and informative commentaries.

The paper was sponsored by the established Trading Post newspaper and Australian photojournalist Ben Bohane, who has an uncompromising reputation for telling the "other side of the story", was appointed editor.

One theme for a six-page cover story was media freedom in the region with the newspaper focusing on governments' attempts to stifle scrutiny, and the "big lies" of politicians over the Pacific solution on asylum seekers and the war on terrorism.

"In the Pacific, there is a general acceptance of the need for a free press, which can help in nation-building and in creating open and accountable governments," Pacific Weekly noted.

"But ... it remains a constant battle. One problem is that because the Ombudsman in many Pacific nations is weak or ineffectual, the press is forced to become the main watchdog for government corruption."

In the process, it is the press that often emerges with a "black eye", rather than the semi-government agencies and police investigators who are tasked with this responsibility.


DAVID ROBIE is co-convenor of Pacific Media Watch and Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Auckland University of Technology's School of Communication Studies. He has been a journalist and media academic in the South Pacific for more than two decades. Email: david.robie@aut.ac.nz



Copyright © 2003 David Robie and Asia-Pacific Network. This document is for educational and research use. Please seek permission for publication.
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