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Government and media must support complaints process, says PFF after shutdown of radio station

(PFF/IFEX) - The Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) says an open and transparent media complaints process for Tonga could have helped to keep 12 Tongans working and the controversial Tongan FM talk station ONE-FM 88.1 on the air.

The FM station was shut down on 4 December 2010, a day after the owner of its broadcasting license cut short the agreed upon timeframe for the licence use, citing complaints against programme content as one of the reasons for his decision. The operating company for ONE-FM, Broadcom Ltd, was set up by Maka and Katalaina Tohi, both former employees of the state-owned national broadcaster. The Tohi's and Broadcom have been awaiting the outcome of their application for a license to Tonga's government since 2009, and had been broadcasting using a license owned by the Taimi Media Group's Kalafi Moala.

Moala rejected any notion that government pressure made him decide to take back his license from Broadcom before the agreed end date of January 2011. In a separate development, Broadcom's application for another available FM frequency in Tonga is experiencing more delays as a result of the inaction of the outgoing government.

"Until a complaint over material is seriously looked into by a tribunal representing the public interest, the current situation is confusing. The complaints never seem to move beyond being serious allegations against media operators whose bread and butter is information," says PFF chair Susuve Laumaea of Papua New Guinea.

"Without putting a complaint or the information that started it all under investigation, there is nothing there to help Tongans, let alone Tongan journalists, understand the rights and responsibilities of the media," he notes.

"It can only benefit all of us if allegations and complaints go through a process which gives a fair and objective space for the complainant and media owner to present their points of view. The ruling of a tribunal provides a more democratic way past the often emotional and other side issues around the complaint itself, and can help all of us to more clearly see and understand the nature of the media's roles and responsibilities. It's a win-win situation."

"We are witnessing a new Tonga being born - similarly, a stronger democracy needs to be served by a stronger media. It's timely that the winds of change sweeping through Tonga are also now indicating the need for a contestable media complaints process which can help all Tongans understand the nature of media freedom and responsibility," says Laumaea.

"It is with sadness and dismay that we learn of the further delay by Tonga's current government on Broadcom's application for the FM 88.5 frequency," says PFF co-chair Monica Miller, of American Samoa. "The [approval of the] application, coming in the wake of the FM 88.1 licensee wanting his license back, would have given 12 Tongan media workers - some of them leading journalists with decades of experience - the chance to keep Tonga's people informed at a critical time in their history."

"We can only urge the government of Tonga to enforce a timely and transparent process on license applications from all media operators who, like Broadcom, are awaiting decisions. It should not take more than 12 months, or a change of government, for a decision to be made."

"As we enter the festive season, our thoughts are with our 12 colleagues and their families, forced off the air by allegations and complaints which never stood the test of a complaints process. What an irony for a media organisation which has contributed much to public debate and discussion leading to the historic 25 November elections, that it should now be shut down and its listeners shut out without any fair hearing on the complaints made."

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