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Tonga, a divided country, caught in a twilight zone of madness

Nuku'alofa, Tonga
“The Tonga Government became uncertain over its authority to govern after the Supreme Court earlier this year declared Ordinances, which were made by the King in Privy Council, to be unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid.”



by Pesi Fonua, Editor, Matangi Tonga  (From our Archives 2003)

The controversy over the proposal by government to amend Clause 7 of the Tongan Constitution, giving government the right to make laws to control Freedom of Speech and the media, is dividing the country.

Heated arguments are continuing between those who support the amendment, and those who are against it.

The government’s view, according to the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Police and the Solicitor General, is that government should have the right to ban newspapers, and to stop people from saying certain things or printing certain articles that government ministers think are improper. Their view is that a government must be seen to be in control, and to be able to control the press and what people say and write and think.

The Tonga Government became uncertain over its authority to govern after the Supreme Court earlier this year declared Ordinances, which were made by the King in Privy Council, to be unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid. When government appealed to the Appeal Court over one of these Supreme Court decisions, the appeal was also dismissed.

The issue has now polarised the country. Tragically, government has decided to deal with the problem by proposing an amendment to Clause 7 of the Constitution, to give them the right to make laws to control Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech, and to deny their critics access to the Human Rights precedents set in the laws of other countries.

But the fact remains that amending the Constitution will not solve the fundamental problem which caused this uproar: firstly, the very poor state of journalism in Tonga; and secondly, the inability of the Crown’s legal counsel to deal with the issues in court.

Gagging the press and the people of Tonga will not improve the state of journalism, or make lawyers’ capable of arguing their cases. We should also remember that the only way for government to win cases in court is to use qualified and experienced legal counsellors. Government is not going to win respect by changing the laws, simply because it has been losing its court cases against its critics.

Why should government change the rules of the game so that it can win? It is just an unacceptable way of thinking that belongs in the stone age. What, really, we should be doing is to encourage and develop talented young professionals, who are fit, skilful, and know the rules of the game, who can take the society forward with respectable professionalism.

At the end of the day, respect will be given freely and generously when it is earned, and cannot by its nature be legislated into force.

It is time to sacrifice our pride and do what is best for Tonga. To proceed with the amendment is a madness and will damage the reputation of this country beyond our wildest nightmares. It goes against the principles of the civilised world.

We are at the cross roads, in an unfamiliar Twilight Zone. Why don’t we just stop right here and go home, and go on with our reforms and our economic recovery program, things which are most urgent to our economy and our lives at this moment. What we are about to debate and fight over will only make us poorer, and allow other people to tell us how backward we are. We need to move back into the light of day so that we can see clearly where we are going.

See also Parliament: Tonga Government disregards protest and pushes through bill, Friday, October 24, 2003.