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Who was angry, and why?

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Matangi Tonga, Vol. 18, No. 3

Comment, by Pesi Fonua

The reason why the Tongan Government decided to enact Media Bills and to amend Clause 7 of the Constitution so that they can control the local Media, remains a mystery.

At one time government said it was targeting the Taimi 'o Tonga newspaper, but, even then, no-one could come up with the offending article or piece, so whoever was angered by it, and why exactly, remains unknown.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the new media legislation is vindictive, because it is meant to hurt.

Now that it has moved on to a greater level of hurting the Tongan media in general and the freedom of speech of the public, it is necessary to ask who initiated this nasty piece of legislation? To find the answer to that question we will still have to go back and ask: who was angered? and by what piece of writing exactly?

The negative consequences of this vindictive legislation far out-weigh any benefits that government will be able to produce from this exercise.

Without even taking into consideration the political implications of such a decision, the most devastating blow of this action is the destruction of an independent publishing industry that has barely been able to move its head, and going with it is the hope of Tonga ever being able to develop its literature, film-making, music-recording, and any creative enterprises that have any connection to the printed word. Progressive creativity is always stifled under strict cultural controls, and particularly when the state sets out in this way to control what people think, and say and write. The government is regulating disincentives to investment in publishing, which are already starting to kick into effect.

Déjà vu

Amazingly, in the short history of modern Tonga, since the proclamation of the Tongan Constitution in 1875, there was an earlier attempt by government to control the press, and recorded in history also was the solution to the problem.

The Tongan historian, the late Sione Latu Kefu in his book The Tongan Constitution gave us a glimpse into the working relationship between Taufa'ahau Tupou I and his Premier, the Rev. Shirley Baker, the two architects of the system of government that we have today.

Sione wrote that Tupou I in his later years, was partially deaf, and he began to depend more and more on his trusted friend, Rev. Shirley Baker. "So much so that most things which were done by the Tongan Government were done in the King's name by Baker.


"Unfortunately, Baker had a rather strong streak of vindictiveness in his character. He was not only extremely ambitious but also a determined fighter. These traits ultimately led to his downfall."

It was not a smooth ride for Baker to gain the favour of the King and become appointed as a Premier in 1880. The task at hand was enormous, establishing a modern form of government after 50 years of civil war, and Baker had a lot of critics and enemies among the Tongan chiefs and a section of the European Community. With so much power and influence now under Baker...’s control he set out not only to silence but also to punish his enemies.

On October 1882 the Tongan Parliament passed a Sedition Act, an Act to Regulate the Printing of Newspapers, and a Libel Act. The intention was to silence Robert Hanslip, the publisher of the paper Niu Vakai who was very critical of Baker and his policies.

To punish his other arch enemy, Rev. J. E. Moulton, the Chairman of the Wesleyan mission, Baker in 1885 introduced the Law of Six and the Law of Thirty, making it illegal to hold church services in any village unless it had six or more adherents. The legislation was intended to discourage people from attending the Wesleyan Church, and instead go to the Free Church, which Baker had established.

What followed was an assassination attempt on the life of Shirley Baker in January 1887, and finally an ultimatum was put to him by the superpower in the region at the time, the British, for him to leave the country under threat of deportation. Rev. Shirley Baker left Tonga in 1890.

So the solution to the mounting political tensions was found in the removal of the instigator of the legislation.