Pacific Media Watch

17 October 2017

TONGA: Matangi Tonga condemns state for ‘annihilating’ public broadcasting

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NUKU'ALOFA (Matangi Tonga/Pacific Media Watch): Matangi Tonga has hit-out at what it says are attempts by the government to take over and “muzzle” the Tonga Broadcasting Commission.

In an editorial, Matangi Tonga states recent restructuring led by TBC’s new board chairman, Dr Tu’i Uata, has “annihilated” the public broadcaster and turned the government watchdog into a “lapdog”.

Matangi Tonga’s editorial comes amid the latest controversy to befall the embattled public broadcaster, which has seen two of the TBC’s most senior journalists, Viola Ulakai and Laumanu Petelō, moved out of the newsroom and into a division labelled “NGO Services”.

The editorial:

With Tonga only weeks away from a snap general election, the Tongan 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 Petelō, 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.

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

No Go
Petelō said that Ulakai 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 newsroom 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 Petelō 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.

Petelō goes on leave today, October 16, 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".

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.

The current members of the TBC Board of Directors are: chairman, Dr Tevita Tu'i Uata; directors, ‘Aloma Johansson, Pita Moala, Siosaia Fonua and Leonaitasi Hoponoa.

The TBC 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.

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