4 May 2017

Tonga PM's overhaul of TBC triggers media concerns

1:26 pm on 4 May 2017

The Tongan government appears to have cracked down on what it calls unfair reporting of its affairs by overhauling the leadership of the state broadcaster.

However a media advocate said it could signal the end of public broadcasting in the country.

Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva has had a tense relationship with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission in recent times, labelling it an 'enemy of the government' and criticising it for not supporting the government's work.

He forced the TBC chair Tapu Panuve to resign, is looking to replace the general manager Nanise Fifita and has not ruled out other changes.

Mr Pohiva said the board has repeatedly failed, in spite of repeated requests from cabinet to make sure that the TBC carried out its function.

Tonga Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva.

Tonga Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva. Photo: RNZ

He said as government property the TBC needs to adhere to those requests.

"It is completely different from any other independent media here in Tonga. So if that is the case, Radio Tonga and Television Tonga's main role is best to facilitate government. But that doesn't mean that government stops TBC from criticising government but it must be do it in a way that is not malicious."

'Ahongalu Fusimalohi replaced Tapu Panuve and said he will look into the complaints of unfair reporting starting with a review of the TBC's recent work.

"Look at the exact news that they are concerned about," he said.

"Look at the exact pieces because I was given a transcript of a press conference that the prime minister had carried out and the representative from Radio Tonga, who apparently is working as a consultant, decided to make use of the opportunity while posing for Radio Tonga, to disrespect the prime minister."

Veteran journalist and vice-president of the local media council Pesi Fonua said he had not witnessed any unfair reporting of the government leading up to the TBC changes.

"Honestly I haven't really seen anything out of the straightforward comment of what is happening," Mr Fonua said.

"What is happening, you can't do much about it. If that's what happened, then that's what you report.

"So I really don't know what they mean, besides the fact that I think it's becoming clear [and] evident that the prime minister is trying to control the Tonga Broadcasting Commission."

Mr Fonua said it could be the last nail in the coffin for TBC.

"Look at the position of Tonga Broadcasting Commission during the past few years which is it has been struggling to keep the service going and this is what is like a final blow," he said.

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'Ahongalu Fusimalohi is the new chair of the TBC board Photo: twitter

'Ahongalu Fusimalohi acknowledged that financially TBC, which gets revenue from advertising, had been struggling

"It has been static over the past five years, more or less being near insolvent and the company needs a major overhaul," he said.

"I am probably the most experienced public service broadcaster in Tonga at the present moment," Mr Fusimalohi said.

"And with my experience, I tend to start with mostly at the grassroots in terms of production and also performance."

He said presentation and content needed to improve.

Prominent publisher, Kalafi Moala, said journalists now fear doing their jobs.

Mr Moala said he had organised a special panel discussion to mark World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday but no one turned up.

"It's affecting press freedom, its bringing a culture of fear upon other journalists and media organisations and it is really bad that here we are commemorating World Press Freedom day and we are having some huge problems here in Tonga," he said.

Mr Moala said it is a very low point for journalists working in Tonga.

Tongan publisher and veteran journalist, Kalafi Moala

Kalafi Moala has seen two sides to 'Akilisi Pohiva Photo: AFP

The Taimi 'o Tonga publisher was jailed back in 1996 alongside 'Akilisi Pohiva for contempt of parliament for publishing something they weren't supposed to.

But Mr Moala said now Mr Pohiva's perception seemed to be that media should always support him and his initiatives, rather than asking too many hard questions of his leadership.

But the prime minister maintained the TBC changes were part of a plan to introduce positive change in the country.

"We are now in a process of transformation and for change to be meaningful and real, we have to introduce reforms. What we have been doing in regards to the operation of TBC is one of the reforms which is necessary and appropriate to be taken so that we can move forward."

However the last time the government enforced board changes at TBC the Supreme Court quashed the removal of the chair and another board member, awarding Lady 'Eseta Fusitu'a and Lady Tuna Fielakepa costs in the process.

There are reports that Nanise Fifita has enrolled the legal assistance of Clive Edwards, who had successfully fought the government in the last case.

Mr Pohiva said Ms Fifita is well within her rights to challenge the personnel decisions but the government will defend them.

- Additional reporting contributed by Sara Vui-Talitu