Kaniva commentary. Philip Cass contributed to this commentary.
What is to be done about the media in Tonga?
The Tongan Constitution guarantees free speech and media freedom, but as we reported in May the kingdom has fallen five places to lie 50th in this year’s World Press Freedom Index.
In last year’s index, compiled by the Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), it was 45th out of 180 countries.
Last month we reported outrage by Tongan journalists when they discovered the Ministry of Communication had passed eight regulations in May, without seeking input from the Media Association of Tonga or others in the sector.
RNZ Pacific Correspondent, Kalafi Moala, said the regulations included a TP$2,000 penalty for publishing or broadcasting sensitive information, without defining this any further.
Moala said the government seemed set against criticism or questioning of its activities.
Earlier this year Prime Minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa told Kaniva News the government would submit Bills to make sure people who abuse social media would be punished.
Reports last week said the government had pulled out 16 Bills from Parliament saying they wanted to review them. The proposed social media controls may be among them.
Unfortunately, such legislation is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past when governments created tougher laws and amendment to the Constitution to try to control the media.
Experience showed that banning media organisations and censoring journalists was in vain. The best example of this was an attempt to ban the Taimi O Tonga newspaper from Tonga in 2003. A Supreme court decision later declared that this violated the constitution.
The late ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s government passed an Act on February 18, 2016 stating that an infringement notice could be issued if there were reasonable grounds to believe that a person has contravened an infringement provision.
Prime Minister Pōhiva, who was once jailed for his stand on press freedom, fought his own battles with the Tongan media when in office. Many people shared his view that some Tongan journalists were working against his government on behalf of other politicians, but it was hard for others to reconcile his image as a champion of democracy with his order to suspend a TBC journalist who had offended him.
While successful Tongan governments have tried to control the media, the media has problems of its own making.
The fact is that for those who can afford them, media outlets are often not there to report the news in a factual and balanced way, but to use them to attack their political opponents or push their own political agenda.
Hon. Pōhiva was one of them.
A lack of balance and accuracy is just one of the problems facing the media, which has often been amateurish, with poor reporting standards. Rather than facts, many media outlets rely largely on opinion rather than accurate and balanced reporting.
The basic journalistic task of answering the key questions – who, what, when, where, why and how – have too often gone by the board.
Many younger journalists seem to lack basic skills, which shows up especially when they are asked to cover courts or do any of the things that require proper training.
Misreporting is rife and mostly it has gone unnoticed because it has been in Tongan, rather than English, where language mistakes are more obvious.
In reality, most journalists in Tonga have been educated in other subjects but not in journalism or communication studies. Most of them had been brought to do the jobs because they were the only ones available and they may have been the only ones who were interested in the jobs.
The situation is not too different from the way it was in 2004 when NZ Aid ran training programmes for local journalists discovered that most had no formal training.
Proper training and education for young journalists is vital. In a world of fake news, conspiracy theories and internet inspired hysteria, it is more vital than ever that people have access to balanced, fair, accurate reporting that does not take sides and whose only purpose is to inform the public.
Unfortunately, the concern over fake news needs to be dealt with properly. Pacific Freedom Forum President Bernadette Carreon described the Tongan government’s recent actions as “an excuse to clamp down on independent reporting while flying the fake news flag.”
The best way to deal with the threat of fake news is to ensure that the conditions in which it can occur do not arise.
An uninformed and ignorant public is a very dangerous thing. Without accurate and balanced news people will believe gossip and lies and will behave accordingly. We only have to look at the dreadful situation in the United States for proof.
It is not impossible to train journalists properly in Tonga, as long as the government realises that the media must be there to inform the public, not to be used as a weapon to settle political disputes.
Local journalists should have access to good journalism and communication studies funded by the government, either in Tonga or at the highly regarded journalism programme at the University of the South Pacific.
It should not be impossible to seek the assistance of international bodies to fund training and scholarships.
Professionalism, ethics and skills should all be regulated by an independent body. Such a body would have to be able to draw on the expertise of experts in journalism, the law and other areas.
An independent body to deal with complaints is also needed. At the moment the only avenue for the public to complain about the media is to go through lawyers and courts. However, this is expensive and time consuming and stops many people from making a complaint.
If these bodies were established it would contribute to the professionalism of journalists in Tonga without the government thinking it had the right to constantly hamper their work.
The other pressing issue is the need for clear standards of transparency for Palace officials and government officers, including the Prime Minister, to follow. The public must be confident officials are being open, especially when responding to questions from the media.
There have been too many instances where a Minister or CEO will not respond to a question or request for comment if they do not like the journalist or the news organisation. There have also been instances where they have chosen to respond to those who support their political views.
There has to be some sort of mechanism in place to make sure the kingdom’s leaders are accountable to the taxpayers through the media. There should be properly trained media officers for all government officials and legislators.
Tonga’s media problems are complicated and multi-faceted and not entirely one sided. The solutions will involve major changes in attitude on the part of the government, improved standards among some sections of the media and better education and training.
There is a long way to go and it is time all parties involved came together to implement the changes.