12 December 2003


King signs constitutional amendment banning independent newspaper, press laws reintroduced

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(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has criticised Tongan King Taufaahau Tupou IV's decision to sign constitutional amendments and reintroduce press laws that allow his government to maintain a ban on the independent newspaper "Taimi o' Tonga". The king signed the amendments into law on 5 December 2003.

The king's actions pose a serious threat to free expression and represent a huge step backward for press freedom in Tonga, the organisation said. It is regrettable that the Tongan authorities have gone so far as to amend the Constitution in order to continue blocking the distribution of "Taimi o' Tonga", which is published in New Zealand, RSF added.

RSF also called on the prime minister, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, to urge the king to reverse these decisions and to allow the newspaper to circulate freely in the country.

In view of the seriousness of the situation, the organisation also announced that it will ask the European Union authorities to apply certain provisions of Article 96 of the Cotonou Convention, which allow for sanctions in case of failure to respect "human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law". Tonga is a signatory to the convention.

The Tongan Constitution previously guaranteed free expression. The amendments signed by the king on 5 December serve 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 the power to grant publication and import licences.

These amendments and press laws eroding the principle of an independent press were approved in October by Parliament. Twenty-one of the Parliament's 30 members were appointed by the king. The Constitution will henceforth allow the authorities to ban a news media if it is deemed to violate "cultural traditions or the right to private life".

In reaction to the constitutional amendments, "Taimi o' Tonga" editor Kalafi Moala, who lives in New Zealand, said free expression had completely ceased to exist in Tonga. The amendments will allow the authorities to ban distribution of other foreign publications as well as "Taimi o' Tonga".


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