2 April 2003


Five persons charged with contempt over television debate on newspaper ban

(PINA/IFEX) - On 2 April 2003, Radio and Television Tonga News reported that five Tongans involved in a television debate on their government's ban on the New Zealand-published newspaper "Times of Tonga" have been charged with contempt of court. The debate was carried on one of the kingdom's privately-owned television stations, operated by Oceania Broadcasting Network, the state-owned Radio and Television Tonga reported.

Radio and Television Tonga said the charges brought by the Crown Law Office claim the issue was "sub judice", because the Supreme Court was hearing an application by the Auckland-based bi-weekly newspaper "Times of Tonga" for a judicial review of the government action at the same time.

Those charged are Lopeti Senituli, Reverend Simote Vea, 'Ofa Simiki, Tavake Fusimalohi and Sangster Saulala, Radio and Television Tonga reported. Fusimalohi is the retired long-time general manager of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission and former executive director of PINA. Saulala is the television station's manager, editor of the newspaper "Tonga Star" and president of the Tonga Media Association. Senituli is director of the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement.

Radio and TV Tonga reported that a spokesperson for the Crown Law Office said writs had been served on the five individuals. Senituli was quoted by Radio New Zealand International as saying he believes the legal action could be prompted by suggestions that the ban might be unlawful.

Background Information

The Tongan authorities declared the Tongan-language "Times of Tonga" a prohibited import and then a prohibited document in legal moves begun in February 2003. The Tongan government alleges the newspaper is "foreign" and is trying to overthrow the kingdom's government structure.

"Times of Tonga" publisher Kalafi Moala says the ban was imposed because of the newspaper's recent reporting on business activities of members of the island nation's royal family. Moala is a Tongan who holds American citizenship. He publishes the "Times of Tonga" from Auckland, where there is a large Tongan population. The newspaper circulated widely in Tonga before the ban. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Moala's application for a judicial review of the government's actions during the week of 31 March.

Freedom of expression is protected under the Tongan constitution. However, the authorities have used criminal libel and other laws against the news media. In December 2002, Moala, journalist Filokalafi 'Akau'ola and pro-democracy movement parliamentarian 'Akilisi Pohiva won damages for being wrongly jailed for contempt of Parliament in 1996. The Supreme Court awarded them a total of nearly US$26,000 (see IFEX alerts of 13 December 2002 and 20 September 1996).

The Tongan government's ban on the "Times of Tonga" has been condemned regionally by PINA and internationally by organisations such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Paris-based Reporters sans frontières (RSF).


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