The repositioning of two prominent journalists sparks further concern of government interference at the Tongan public broadcaster.

News editor Viola Ulukai and editor Laumanu Petelō have been removed from their posts at the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) and placed in new positions within its sales department, in what has been criticised as a political restructure.

Lulumanu Petelo The TBC’s Laumanu Petelo says they are not an enemy of government. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka’uta

The highly questionable move was sanctioned by new TBC chair, Tu’i Uata, who claimed it was needed to stop the broadcaster from running at a loss and subsequently closed. According to Uata, the news department was a major contributor to losses through running “unpopular content”.

However, the restructure has been widely condemned as an attempt by government to exert greater control over news coverage ahead of the country’s upcoming election. The journalists’ lawyer, Clive Edwards, is now preparing breach of contract proceedings, telling Radio New Zealand: “The situation is somewhat dangerous and precarious because of the attitude of this chairman of doing what he wants to do unrestrained and use his position for campaigning,”.

The move is the latest in a series of attempts by Tonga’s government to exert control over TBC and infringe upon its independence. Earlier this year Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva fired TBC’s chair and accused the broadcaster of becoming an “enemy of the government” due to its critical reporting. He also called for it to facilitate the government’s work – a move that fundamentally undermines its role as a public broadcaster.

In May Pohiva also declared “void” the automatic renewal of former general manager Nanisē Fifita and has since pushed for a 49% stake of TBC to be sold privately, leading to fears that it would diminish its public value and impartiality, while outer islands would lose invaluable links to the rest of Tonga.

Tonga’s PM ‘Akilisi Pohiva has run his own Kele’a newspaper. Image: RNZ

There are also concerns that the recent spate of moves will further entrench self-censorship among the fledgling democracy’s editors and journalists, who must already negotiate the frequent threat of law-suits, heavy damages and laws that limit online content.

Media watchdog Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) has denounced the latest restructure and called on the government to stop using “so-called losses” as a means of gagging TBC’s newsroom and instead “question itself rather than act against the public interest”.

“We urge Tonga’s leadership to take their grievances and allegations over breaches of ethics or standards by any journalist, to the national media body or to bring them to our attention where a mediated and objective report can be made possible,” said PFF chair Monica Miller.

In April, PMA President and Radio New Zealand Chief Executive Paul Thompson called on the Tongan Prime Minister to carefully consider the role of public broadcasters, stating that PSB’s “must have the freedom to question and challenge the authority of the state if they are to fulfil their duty to create an informed and connected democratic society”.

The Public Media Alliance vehemently stands by this call and will continue to advocate for the protection of an independent public broadcaster in Tonga as a cornerstone of an informed and effective democracy.

By Kristian Porter

Header image: Tonga Broadcasting Commission studios in Fasi. Credits: RNZ Pacific/Koro Vaka’uta