Bringing fairness to Tonga’s state broadcaster

Opinion by editor Kalino Lātū

Is it time to restructure the Tonga Broadcasting Commission?

The current situation in which senior journalist Viola Ulakai has been suspended by the Commission’s board raises questions not just about her own conduct, but the relationship between the broadcaster and Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government.

In a letter to the Minister of Public Enterprises, Hon. Poasi Tei dated April 13, in which he recommended Ulakai’s suspension, the Prime Minister said: “These attacks from Tonga Broadcasting Commission are unbecoming from Government’s very own public enterprise. However, as many may agree, this has been ongoing since this Government came into office.”

Ulakai’s suspension was based on charges by the Prime Minister that:

  1. She lied when she used the name of the Tonga Media Council to request a press conference with the Prime Minister at which questions regarding his son Siaosi would be asked.
  2. She implied that the Prime Minister ‘son Siaosi owed his position at Educational Quality and Assesment Programme to his father’s influence, even though his son had held the position for many years before his father became Prime Minister and took over the Education portfolio. He said it was “demeaning” for Ulakai to believe this.
  3. In her behaviour in pursuing the issue of his son’s employment with EQAP, she displayed “malicious intent to damage my reputation and that of my Ministry.”

The first charge against Ulakai constitutes a breach of the Tonga Media Council General Code of Ethics for the News Media. The code’s guidelines on subterfuge say:

“Try to always use fair, responsible and honest means in obtaining material.  Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Use of subterfuge (e.g. false identity or covert recordings) should be avoided.  It can be justified only in rare circumstances when the material sought should be published because of compelling public interest and cannot be obtained in any other way.”

Ulakai breached this clause because she falsely identified herself as representing of the Tonga Media Council. The President of the TMC, Lady Luseane Luani, later denied Ulakai was representing the council when she asked for a press conference. The President said she was not aware of Ulakai’s press conference request to the Prime Minister and the brand name could not be used by individual members.

Why did Ulakai not simply request the press conference using her position as Head of the Television and Radio Tonga? The Prime Minister supplied one possible answer last month when he declared the Radio and Television Tonga’s attitudes and conduct towards his government was different from what the way they behaved towards previous administrations.

I believe that Radio and Television Tonga and its news output in particular has a very clear bias when it comes to Pohiva and his political supporters.

Its television programme, Kanokato ʻo e Tālangá, on which Ulakai has interviewed some of the public and government leaders doesn’t always appear to be impartial.

To be blunt, some of the interviews seem to have been designed to indirectly attack the politicians of the left and their supporters.

The Prime Minister and Ulakai have clashed on air. In March 2015 Ulakai interviewed Prime Minister ʻAkilisi Pohiva about the appointment of Dr Palenitina Langaʻoi  as Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet. The interview was conducted in Tongan.

At one stage Ulakai told the Prime Minister that Hon. Pohiva Tuʻiʻonetoa “should not” be a member of one of the panels that interviewed the candidates for the Chief Secretary because he had been cited as a referee in three of the interviewees’ applications.

Hon. Pohiva said he knew nothing about the matter, but that he and the panel had acted within the law before appointing Langaʻoi.

Ulakai abruptly asked Pohiva: “Who were the ones who recommended the panels?” Pohiva said it was the Public Service Commission.

Ulakai then asked: “Who were those people in the PSC?”

She said she knew that Dr Langaʻoi was still working for the PSC during the selection of the panellists. She suggested that Langaʻoi should have been removed from the PSC because she was one of the job applicants.

The Prime Minister told Ulakai he believed the PSC did everything according to the rules and her questions had strayed from the focus of the interview.

However, Ulakai persisted and asked Pohiva why the government had not established an independent committee to select the panellists when someone in the PSC was applying to the job.

Again the Prime Minister said he did not know, but said he knew that was the policy the PSC  select the panellists to do the interview.

Ulakai then suggested that it may have been better if Langaʻoi had been removed from the PSC so the selection could be carried out independently.

Again the Prime Minister told Ulakai all he knew was that the PSC acted according to the law.

Some viewers may have regarded the interview as an example of a journalist trying to make the Prime Minister accountable for the actions of his subordinates through a series of hard hitting questions.

However, many others will, I think, have decided that Ulakai was trying to hold the Prime Minister accountable to her own ideas about what the government should do and not what the government must do according to the law.

Many viewers would have been left with the impression that Pohiva’s government had done something illegal and dishonest before it appointed the Chief Secretary.

And many viewers would have regarded Ulakai as having politicised the interview.

It’s worth remembering that the code of ethics says that journalists should do their utmost to

“provide balanced coverage by proving a fair opportunity for any individual or organizations mentioned in a news story to respond to allegations or criticism before publication.  Failing that, you should provide a reasonable opportunity for response after the news item has been published.”

Tonga’s state broadcaster has been accused for many years of a general bias and partiality when it comes to Hon. Pohiva and the democrats.

The late former General Manager of the Radio and Television Tonga,  Late Tavake Fusimalohi, spoke to me openly about this.

There have been issues of real concerns that significantly affected the nation in the past, but Radio and Television Tonga turned a blind eye to them.

When it was leaked in 2012 to local media, including Kaniva News, that the government of Lord Tu’ivakano has transferred US$25 million in response to a request by Princess Pilolevu to help revive her Satellite company, Ulakai was the head of the Radio and Television Tonga’s news room.

This issue was never covered by the Radio and Television Tonga and there is no evidence that Ulakai asked for a press conference with the then Prime Minister to clarify the transfer of the Chinese funding intended to help develop the Tongan society to a privately owned company.

Nor, when she interviewed Lord Tu’ivakano or his Ministers, did she pursue the issue of the transfer of money with the same vigour with which she interviewed Hon. Pohiva.

Kaniva News does not condone the idea of the government or any organisation persecuting journalists or to unnecessarily controlling public information.

However, if we are to have a public broadcaster in the kingdom that is supported by taxpayers’ money, the public must be able to reply on it producing balanced and impartial news and stories.

Does that mean the broadcaster needs to be restructured?

The current situation could give the government an excuse to inject new blood, new ideas and new standards into the national broadcaster so it provides the kind of news the public needs.

Restructuring doesn’t necessarily mean  turning the broadcaster upside down, but at the very least it could mean restructuring its standards and responds to  the very real public concern about its perceived political stance.

For more information

Press release from the Tonga Media Council

Tonga Media Council General Code of Ethics for the News Media

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