Tonga has dropped two places in this year’s international press freedom rankings from Reporters Sans frontiers.
It is now listed as 51st out of 180 countries.
This places it ahead of the two other Pacific nations listed by the RSF: Papua New Guinea, which has dropped two places to 53rd and Fiji, which has risen by 10 places to 57th.
The RSF report said the re-election of Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s party in November 2017 was accompanied by growing tension between the government and journalists.
Hon. Pohiva has had a tempestuous relationship with the kingdom’s media and his constant clashes with the Tongan Broadcasting Commission have particularly drawn attention
The International Federation of Journalists reported last November that news editor Laumanu Petelō and news manager Viola Ulakai were removed from their positions as part of the clash with the Prime Minister.
The TBC’s board chair and the general manager were also removed.
Hon. Pohiva described the state broadcaster as “an enemy of government.”
“They claim the freedom of media should be allowed, should be the same with any other media in Tonga but they should understand there is a basic difference between a private media and also government media. Their main role, to me, is to facilitate the work of the government.”
The RSF noted that some politicians have sued media outlets, exposing them to the risk of heavy damages awards. Some journalists reported they were forced to censor themselves because of the threat of being bankrupted.
However, it noted that independent media outlets have increasingly assumed a watchdog role since the first democratic elections in 2010.
The RSF index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It is a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country.
In other international rankings, the US-based Freedom House listed the Tongan media as free in 2017. On a scale of one (most free) to 7 (least free) it ranked the kingdom as 2/7 for political rights and civil liberties.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, RSF reported that while Papua New Guinea’s media enjoyed a relatively free environment, journalists were still subject to violence. There were several cases in 2017 of journalists being the targets of police violence and some officials directly threatened journalists whose articles criticize them.
The authorities repeatedly prevented the media and citizen-journalists from freely covering the elections in June and July 2017.
In Fiji, the RSF said the adoption of a new constitution in 2013 and the ensuing parliamentary elections in September 2014 had a positive effect on access to information. This could be seen in the public debate and pluralistic coverage during the election itself despite some problems in the run-up, the RSF said.
However, the media were still restricted by the 2010 Media Industry Development Decree and the Media Industry Development Authority. The RSF said the ruling Fiji First party were hostile to Fijian journalists.