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Tonga wrongful dismissal case will clarify role of public broadcaster

Prime Minister of Tonga Samiuela Akilisi Pohiva addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, 24 September 2016
Prime Minister of Tonga Samiuela Akilisi Pohiva addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, 24 September 2016

REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

This statement was originally published on PFF's Facebook page on 23 May 2017.

A wrongful dismissal complaint being brought against the government of Tonga by the sacked General Manager of the national broadcaster will help to educate the public and politicians on the independent public-interest role of national broadcasters, says regional media watchdog the Pacific Freedom Forum, PFF.

The online network of working Pacific journalists and media practitioners has expressed alarm and concern on increasing threats to media independence in Tonga especially the national broadcaster, the Tonga Broadcasting Corporation. Their fears are that 'inaccurate and highly personal views on the public-service mandate of public broadcasters' aired by the Prime Minister in recent weeks were part of an intimidating warning to all journalists, before the sacking of longtime Tonga Broadcasting Corporation Manager Nanise Fifita, earlier this month. An application for judicial review against Government over her dismissal and the termination of her renewed contract as CEO of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission on 1 May 2017, was filed last week.

Months of stress and pressure would have faced the leaders and staff of the corporation as the ongoing comments and warnings from the Prime Minister were reported, says PFF Chair Monica Miller of American Samoa. She says intimidation should be exposed for what it is, revealing 'misinformed and archaic' thinking by some leaders that their governments should be free to control and shape the news agenda in the national broadcaster.

"We note the case before the courts should now clarify to government leaders, journalists and all the status of media independence in Tonga - and anywhere else," Miller says. "The Tongan Broadcasting Corporation exists to serve the people of Tonga. That means providing a vital function of unbiased and accurate news reports of events in the kingdom, even the airing of opinions that may be negative towards the government."

As the funding source for TBC, Tongan taxpayers have a right to be informed of all parts of the public debate on issues, not just those that paint the government or its leaders in a positive light.

"Before Mr. Pohiva became Prime Minister of Tonga he was a crusader for the public's right to know and freedom of the media to report without fear or favor. He has direct experience with the brunt of punitive action led by governments of the day. He should know better, and should expect that his remarks and commentary on the role of the broadcaster would be challenged by his former colleagues."

Miller says the statements reported by the Prime Minister leading up to the firing of Ms Fifita, "are in my view veiled threats that if public service media don't tow the government line you would be fired. Also in Tonga Broadcasting, senior journalists such as Viola Ulukai and Laumanu Petelo have been taken to task and even belittled for their fearless and probing approach during question time.

"The efforts to terminate Ms Ulakai and the outcry from her Pacific and global media colleagues last year, and most recently, the flippant and condescending manner used to brush aside questions from Ms Petelo in a recent episode are a worrying signal that gender bias and bullying against women who do not 'know their place' is coming into play."

"Regardless of their gender, journalists are trained to be impartial in their reporting, to not take sides but to report fairly, accurately and responsibly. What Pohiva is asking of the TBC goes against the principles of fair and unbiased reporting. Will he want his tenure as prime minister to be remembered for this?"

"He can restore that reputation by reinstating Ms. Fifita and allowing her to manage TBC without interference from his government".

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