Pacific Media Watch

16 August 2019

TONGA: Government must strike balance between protecting free expression and reacting to royal slurs, says Kaniva Tonga


By Kalino Latu and Philip Cass
AUCKLAND (Kaniva Tonga/Pacific Media Watch):
The Tongan government must not shut down Facebook.

It is understandable that the government has been outraged by the comments posted online about members of the royal family.

However, shutting down Facebook in Tonga will not solve the problem.

People with the right software will be able to circumvent the ban and there are dozens of other online forums where people can post anything they like.

No matter what ban the government might impose, Tongans living overseas who are suspected of posting the comments on the royals, could continue to post obscene allegations on Facebook.

According to a report published by Radio FM 87.5 on its Facebook page today, a report from the Attorney-General on the issue will be submitted to Parliament tomorrow.

The Cabinet is expected to make its final decision based on the report.

Making a mistake
The government will make a mistake if it tries to ban Facebook.

The Tonga Chamber of Commerce has objected to the closure.

Ordinary Tongans have also opposed the proposal.

While some supported the move, many said Facebook should not be closed down just because of an act of pure evil by a few unidentified groups or individuals.

They said the best solution was for the government  to investigate and bring those responsible to justice.

They said Tonga must accept the reality of digital world and information age.

Some suggested the king and royal family must learn to face these kind of comments because it was an expression of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is guaranteed  under the Tongan constitution,

They said the government must treat the king and the royals equally with other  people when it comes to social media because that is how social media was meant to be.

Everyone was free to post what they think of their leaders.

Striking a balance  between freedom of expression and being offensive is not easy, especially when a country ‘s democratic political structures are new.

However, that is what the Tongan government must do.

Earlier this year New Zealand’s Minister of Justice, Andrew Little,  wrote about freedom of speech in New Zealand. His comments raise issues that are pertinent to the situation in Tonga.

“Protecting freedom of speech is vital to hold those in authority to account, challenge the socially and culturally dominant, and enable society to progress.

Discomfort over new ideas
“Freedom of speech can give force to new ideas, but also cause discomfort and offence.

“When speech threatens others, or is abusively discriminatory, then it has the potential to cause harm and encroach on the freedom of others.

“Drawing the line is not simple. Protecting freedom of speech that challenges authority and orthodoxy will inevitably still cause offence to some.”

The decision the Tongan government faces is not an easy one. To simply shut down Facebook would not stop offensive comments being made.

It could also damage the kingdom’s economy and severely inconvenience those ordinary Tongans who use the online forum sensibly.

More importantly, it would, however hard it is to accept, strike a blow against freedom of speech, something that should not come from a democratic government.

Today's editorial in Kaniva Tonga is republished by the Pacific Media Centre as part of its content sharing arrangement with the Tongan news website.

Pacific Media Watch

PMC's media monitoring service

Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators. (cc) Creative Commons