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Tonga received a downward trend arrow due to continuing government efforts to tighten controls over the media.
The king of Tonga signed into law a controversial amendment to the constitution in December 2003 giving the government greater control over the media. This unpopular action was quickly followed by new media laws to curb foreign ownership and distribution of publications critical of the government. In October, the Supreme Court ruled that the media laws and parts of the amendments were null and void.
Tonga consists of 169 islands that King George Tupou I united under his rule in 1845. The country became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. In 1970, Tonga gained independence; it is a member of the British Commonwealth. The 85-year-old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has reigned since 1945.
Politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. The first strong show of public support for democratic reform was the election of pro-democracy candidates for seven of the nine directly elected seats reserved for commoners in the March 2002 elections. Soon afterwards, the government initiated some public and economic sector reforms, which critics said were far from sufficient. Some voices for change have come from within the monarchy; Prince Tu'ipelehake, a nephew of the king's, had openly called on Australia to pressure Tonga to expand democracy in the kingdom. In October 2004, his proposal for a referendum to allow popular election of all representatives won a narrow approval from parliament after a similar proposal submitted as a people's petition in September 2004 was thrown out by parliament.
In December 2003, the government approved amendments to the constitution that - along with the controversial Newspaper Act and Media Operators Act that were passed by parliament in October 2003 - give it licensing power over all publications in the kingdom, including foreign publications that circulate in Tonga. The Newspaper Act requires licenses for publishers, sellers, and importers, with violations carrying a $10,000 fine or imprisonment for a maximum of one year. The Media Operators Act limits foreign ownership of publications published in Tonga to 20 percent. The government said that these new laws were needed to address concerns about foreign entities entering the media market in Tonga and were not intended to curtail freedom of the press. In January 2004, 152 plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court for a judicial review of the media laws. In October, the Supreme Court ruled that the Media Operators Act, Newspaper Act, and parts of the constitutional amendment restricting freedom of speech were void and invalid.
In an attempt to deny its critics another favorable court ruling, the Tongan parliament abolished use of the British Civil Liberty Law by Tongan courts as part of a parcel of bills in December 2003. This law had been used to cover matters, like adoption, not addressed by Tongan law. In April 2004, Chief Justice Frederick Gordon Ward resigned to assume a new position as the chairman of the Court of Appeal in Fiji. There was speculation that Ward's resignation was prompted by the parliament's decision to abolish use of the British Civil Liberty Law.
In July, the parliament temporarily suspended two pro-democracy parliament members from attending sessions: 'Akilisi Pohiva was suspended for a day and a half, and 'Etuate Lvulavu for three days, for allegedly disrupting legislative proceedings with their questions about official corruption and abuses.
Tongan citizens cannot change their government democratically. The king, 33 hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners dominate politics and the economy through their majority in parliament and their substantial land holdings. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV appoints his cabinet without election and for life terms, and the cabinet holds 12 of 30 seats in the unicameral legislature. Another 9 parliament seats are reserved for the nobles, who are chosen by their peers, and cabinet members and nobles usually vote as one bloc. The remaining 9 representatives are elected in general elections. The king appoints the prime minister and presides over the Privy Council, which makes major policy decisions. Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, the king's third son, was appointed prime minister in 2000 over Crown Prince Tupoutoa Tupouto'a. Prince Ma'tau, the second son of the king, died in February 2004.
The number of seats held by prominent commoners has been shrinking in recent years, losing to pro-democracy candidates. In September, pro-democracy representatives proposed a referendum on directly electing all 30 representatives, while still allowing the king to appoint the prime minister and his cabinet from those elected. The parliament rejected this proposal, but put forth a similar one in October.
Official corruption and abuses are serious problems in Tonga, causing public dissatisfaction with the government and hindering economic growth. Nobles and others with connections to the political elite own large tracts of land and dominate big and medium-size businesses.
Despite constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and the press, the government has a long history of suppressing criticism of the monarchy and government. The government owns shares in several private media companies and runs the country's television and radio stations. The government-owned Tonga Communications Corporation and the private Tonofon, with significant shareholding by members of the royal family, are the two Internet service providers. Internet diffusion in Tonga is limited by cost and technical access challenges.
In 2004, two church papers (the Roman Catholic Church's Taumu'a Lelei and the Tokaikolo Christian Fellowship's 'Ofa Ki Tonga), the Tonga Chamber of Commerce's newsletter Lali Buzz, the government-owned weekly Tonga Chronicle, the Vula News Company, and the privately owned Tonga Star were granted new licenses. Vavau Press, publisher of the monthly Matangi Tonga, received a license in its third try and after one of its co-owners was granted Tongan citizenship. The Tonga Times and the opposition's Ko e Kele'a were both denied licenses. The government also arrested a New Zealand citizen of Tongan descent who entered the kingdom in February 2004 with 20 copies of the Tonga Times. In the last several years, the government has tried repeatedly to silence the Tonga Times, a particularly vocal critic of the government; the paper is independently owned by a New Zealand citizen of Tongan heritage and is published in New Zealand.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in this predominantly Christian society. However, the Tongan Broadcasting Commission requires that any references to religion on radio and television must conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. As such, there are limits on broadcasts about non-Christian religions as well as those, such as Mormonism, not considered mainstream. There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom, but self-censorship is practiced to avoid trouble with the government.
Freedom of assembly and association are generally respected for groups not involved in politics and not critical of government policies. In October 2003, nearly one-tenth of the country's population demonstrated against new media restrictions. Many civil society organizations are active in promoting education, public health, and children's and women's welfare. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated. The economy's substantial trade deficit is largely offset by remittances from Tongans working overseas, foreign aid, and tourism.
The judiciary is generally fair, efficient, and independent of the king and the executive branch. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that two prisoners suffered abuse in prison before their escape in January. The escapees voluntarily returned to prison after 11 days. It is not clear yet how the parliament's decision to abolish use of the British Civil Liberty Law will affect the judiciary. Traditional elders in villages also exercise considerable authority and frequently adjudicate local disputes. Prisons are sparse, but there were no reports of prisoner abuse. Suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing.
Citizens enjoy freedom of travel, movement, and migration. Immigration laws were tightened after the illegal sale of Tongan passports, particularly to persons from China and Taiwan, became sore points in Tongan relations with major aid donors. Relations between Tongans and Chinese immigrants have worsened in recent years as evidenced by attacks against Chinese-owned shops.
Women face discrimination in almost every sphere of life and are frequent victims of domestic violence. There are few legal protections for women, and the police and courts generally consider domestic abuse better handled by families and village elders.