In 2009 Tongan publisher Kalafi Moala warned that the country’s democratic politicians were turning into the very people they had opposed.
Moala was speaking in the aftermath of the Nuku’alofa riots and was highly critical in particular of ‘Akilisi Pōhiva.
Moala has had a stormy relationship with the Prime Minister and quit as the Prime Minister’s media adviser.
However, his words should hang in the air behind Hon. Pōhiva’s head as his government considers its reaction to the latest Facebook controversy.
The Prime Minister’s reaction to criticism in the media and what he sees as conspiratorial processes in the Tongan Broadcasting Commission have already led people to wonder whether this is the same man who promotes democracy.
Moala’s experiences under King Tupou IV earlier this century should be a warning to the government about what happens when a determined media is challenged.
In 2003 the Tongan government banned Taimi ‘o Tonga for criticising the government of Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata.
The paper had denounced corruption and a decision by King Taufa’āhau Tupou IV to build a cigarette factory.
Supporters of the king circulated a petition in January 2002 calling for the paper to be banned. Moala, who was deported to New Zealand in 1995, was charged with libelling the king.
Ultimately, however, the attempted ban failed and the government was heavily criticised at home, abroad and in the courts.
Tonga’s Supreme Court declared the ban on the bi-weekly paper illegal and a violation of the national constitution.
Lord Chief Justice Ward said the government’s repeated efforts to ban the paper were thinly-veiled attempts to curb press freedom. The judge also suspended the government’s cancellation of the paper’s publishing license.
Kaniva News understands the government’s position on the Facebook posts perfectly well.
They have been described as obscene and have deeply offended many Tongans.
However, as we have pointed out, it would be easy to get around any ban on Facebook with the right software and in any case, the perpetrators of the posts seem to live in Australia and will not be affected.
A wholesale ban on Facebook would be unlikely to succeed and would upset the majority of Tongans who use the site for legitimate purposes.
By trying to impose a ban the government will simply make itself look foolish or ineffective.
The best it is likely to be able to do is to negotiate with Facebook to have the posts removed.
Facebook is in fact vulnerable at the moment, having been lambasted over its failure to stop the live stressing of the Christchurch mosque massacre and its role in running fake news and Russian backed propaganda during the US elections and the UK Brexit vote.
The government should take advantage of Facebook’s own vulnerability and use it to resolve the situation in a way that targets the people responsible without risking the government’s reputation or angering legitimate users.
Nor can it risk, in Moala’s words, doing the very things for which Prince Ata’s government was criticised.
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