17 Jun 2013

Tongan Prime Minister's defamation action part of an 'ongoing saga'

5:17 pm on 17 June 2013

A Tongan newspaper has been ordered to pay damages to the prime minister and six other cabinet ministers, following a successful defamation action.

The Kele'a newspaper published a letter to the editor in October 2012 that repeated claims made in Parliament against the ministers, accusing them of being above the law.

Observers say the case is part of an ongoing political duel.

Alex Perrottet reports:

Since Tonga's new parliament was elected in 2010, People's Representative 'Akilisi Pohiva has levelled accusations of corruption against government ministers. The veteran politician has had a long association with the Kele'a newspaper, which published a letter from Solomone Palu last October, echoing Mr Pohiva's claims. His long-time rival Clive Edwards, the minister of justice, says you can't make the claims without proof.

"CLIVE EDWARDS: It's one of the most ridiculous cases that have been raised and it's all political. How can you call somebody a thief, a criminal and not fit to be a minister or prime minister because he is a crook."

The editor, Mateni Tapueluelu, and his wife Laucala, who is the publisher, were each fined almost US$70,000 in damages and costs. Solomone Palu, who was ordered to pay more than US$34,000, was represented by Mr Pohiva. But the representative of the ministers was Clive Edwards himself, and New Zealand-based Tongan academic, Dr Malakai Koloamatangi, says that was a conflict of interest.

Dr MALAKAI KOLOAMATANGI: It is odd that the Minister for Justice is the lawyer in front of a local judge who is appointed by the ministry. That has to be cleared up.

Mr Edwards was also awarded costs for his time. But he says he sees no conflict of interest. Mateni Tapueluelu says the letter's content was already on the public record as it referred to accusations that were made in Parliament.

MATENI TAPUELUELU: The letter was based on the argument on the vote of no confidence. This is a public issue. It was broadcast live on Radio Tonga, It is being discussed here and there and the letter itself is simply an opinion by a citizen of Tonga. This is completely allowed by the constitution and the law.

Dr Malakai Koloamatangi says it's just another chapter in the long political feud between Mr Edwards and Mr Pohiva.

Dr MALAKAI KOLOMATANGI: There has been this long-standing feud between Edwards and Pohiva, in the Kele'a, so it's part of that long-running saga, as well. And it looks like it's not going to change. I believe Edwards, I think is nearly 80, he's about 79 years old, and Pohiva, I think, is also around 70. So we're not talking about young men here, we're talking about elderly gentlemen who have had these differences for a very long time.

Mateni Tapueluelu says he is not surprised at the decision and confident that the High Court will overturn the ruling. Dr Koloamatangi says it's likely the High Court may rule differently as the foreign judges often overturn local magistrates' decisions.