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Govt annihilates spirit of public broadcasting

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

With Tonga only weeks away from a snap General Election, the Tonga government is taking full control of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC), in a move that has annihilated its right to function as an honest Public Broadcaster.

The TBC's two most senior journalists, Viola Ulakai, the Manager of News Content, and Laumanu Petelo, the News Editor, have been ordered out of the newsroom and into a corner called "NGO Services".

The decision by the TBC's new Chairman of the Board of Directors, Dr Tevita Tu'i Uata, is a blatant attempt to turn watchdogs into lap dogs.

Laumanu and Viola, the most senior journalists remaining at the TBC, after their CEO was removed earlier this year, at first resisted the move.

No Go

Laumanu said that Viola had renewed her working contract with the TBC, and she had signed a working contract with the TBC as a News Editor in June. She said that they refused to move because they were contracted as journalists to work in the News Division, and they did not know what they were supposed to be doing at the new "NGO Services" Division.

But at the end of last week they decided to move out from the News Room and over to the NGO Services Division.

They are hearing rhetoric that the TBC is losing money, and that their news service, which is not pro-government, is being blamed for its financial woes.

There have been talks for the TBC news to be in Tongan only, which Laumanu believes will be a disappointment for foreign diplomats who financially prop up the service of TBC, and rely on their daily news coverage of Tongan affairs.

Laumanu goes on leave today, 16 October and will not return to work until early next month.

Political control

The feud between government and the TBC has been going on since the present government came into power at the end of 2014. There have also been court cases between government and members of the Board and the CEO of TBC.

The rhetoric by government officials, that because the TBC is a Public Enterprise its news coverage "should be pro-government", is completely off the mark. No genuinely professional journalists will work under such a politically controlled system.

It is quite clear with the beheading of the news service that government is taking full control of the Public Broadcaster in the lead up to the November 16 general election.

The concept of Public Broadcasting, as with the BBC, Radio Australia and broadcasting establishments in some Commonwealth countries, is that governments allocate funds for Public Broadcasters with independent newsrooms espousing a principle of "impartial, free and fair". For example, the BBC's Editorial Values make it clear that the broadcaster is "independent of outside interests and arrangements that could undermine our editorial integrity.  Our audiences should be confident that our decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests..... We will ask searching questions of those who hold public office and others who are accountable, and provide a comprehensive forum for public debate."

Public Broadcasters do not rely on advertising to the same degree as commercial broadcasters. This allows public broadcasters to transmit programmes that are not commercially viable to the mass market, such as well-balanced public affairs shows, radio and television documentaries, and educational programmes, that otherwise could not be produced.

TBC Board members

The current members of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission Board of Directors are: Chairman, Dr Tevita Tu'i Uata. Directors, ‘Aloma Johansson, Pita Moala, Siosaia Fonua and Leonaitasi Hoponoa.

The Tonga Broadcasting Commission was established in 1961, and it has developed and benefited over the years with continuing assistance from foreign aid donors. Over the years, it has managed to play its part as a watchdog over national affairs.

Now there appears to be an unfortunate attempt to muzzle the watchdog.