Tonga | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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A state of emergency declared during a wave of riots over political reform in November 2006 remained in place throughout 2007. Authorities arrested several prodemocracy activists and charged them with sedition, and suspects accused the security forces of beatings and abuse. The government declared it was committed to political reform but announced no timetable or actions to that end.

Tonga consists of 169 islands that King George Tupou I united under his rule in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900, gaining independence in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV ruled from 1945 to 2006. His son, Crown Prince Tupouto’a, assumed the title King Siaosi Tupou V in 2006.

Politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. Prodemocracy candidates were first elected to the parliament in 2002, winning seven of nine directly elected seats for commoners. Prodemocracy candidates again won the majority of commoners’ seats in the 2005 elections, and for the first time, two “people’s representatives” joined the cabinet. Growing public demand for political reform pushed the king in 2005 to approve the formation of a constitutional review committee chaired by Prince Tu’ipelehake, his nephew and a prominent democracy advocate. The prince was killed in a car accident in 2006, however, which was a major blow to the prodemocracy movement.

When Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata resigned as prime minister in 2006, the king appointed Fred Sevele, a people’s representative, to replace him, marking the first time a commoner held the post.

In October 2006, the National Committee for Political Reform submitted its report to the government, recommending a 26-seat parliament with 17 members elected by the people and nine by the 33 nobles, and a prime minister and cabinet chosen from among the lawmakers. The government offered a counterproposal under which the king would retain the power to appoint the prime minister and cabinet and include individuals from outside the legislature. Prodemocracy activists rejected this counterproposal and launched a protest on November 17 that quickly degenerated into rioting. Several people were killed, hundreds were injured, and 80 percent of the capital’s business district was destroyed. The king declared a state of emergency, which remained in effect throughout 2007.

Nearly 700 people were arrested in connection with the riots, and prominent prodemocracy activists and lawmakers were charged with sedition. In May, the Community Paralegal Task Force on Human Rights, a 130-member regional organization, reported that nearly half of all suspects surveyed accused the military or police of physical abuse.

In June, the Tongan Broadcasting Commission (TBC) was ordered to stop reporting on parliamentary proceedings after several cabinet members accused it of bias. Although the government said the ban was subsequently lifted, political coverage remained restricted at year’s end. In July and August, two senior union officials resigned, alleging pressure from the government due to their calls for political reform. In November, the government announced the formation of a new Department of Information to oversee all media reporting. On December 21, the government sued a newspaper, Kele’a, for alleged defamation over a critical editorial. These actions prompted local and international criticism, but the government showed little concern.

Meanwhile, Sevele pledged to continue with political reforms but provided little detail on their nature or timing. When the king opened the new legislative session in May, he stressed education reform but made no comment on a timetable for political reform.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tonga is not an electoral democracy. The king selects the cabinet, which consists of two nobles and two commoners drawn from the unicameral Legislative Assembly, as well as 10 life appointees. The four lawmakers elevated to the cabinet are replaced through by-elections. The assembly consists of nine popularly elected members and nine nobles elected by their peers, all serving three-year terms, plus the 14 cabinet members sitting ex-officio. As part of a deal to end the November 2006 riots, the king and prodemocracy leaders agreed to create a 30-seat parliament in 2008, with 21 elected members and nine seats reserved for nobles, and a cabinet drawn entirely from the assembly. It remained unclear in 2007 whether the government intended to enact that plan.

There are several budding political parties in Tonga, and prodemocracy candidates have aligned themselves with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, though it is not a formal party.

Widespread official corruption is a source of public discontent. The royals, the nobles, and their top associates have allegedly used state assets for their personal benefit. Tonga was ranked 175 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom, the government has long suppressed media criticism. In 2004, the Supreme Court struck down a series of laws and constitutional amendments aimed at silencing critical print outlets. Political reporting has been invigorated by the presence of democracy advocates in parliament and broader public pressure for reform, but in 2007 the TBC faced restrictions on political coverage after cabinet ministers complained of bias. Further, government practices such as not publicly releasing draft budgets and bills or charging a fee to obtain court papers effectively restricts transparency and public involvement in policy decisions. The state owns shares in several private media companies and runs the television and radio stations. Internet diffusion is limited by cost and infrastructural challenges but demand is growing rapidly.

Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. Academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.

Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld for apolitical or uncritical groups, but those engaging in protests and marches have reportedly suffered from government harassment. The state of emergency in force since the November 2006 riots restricts public assembly in the capital. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.

The judiciary is generally independent and efficient, and traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Criminal suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. Prisons are spartan, but there are no reports of prisoner abuse.

Tensions between Tongans and Chinese immigrants have worsened in recent years, as evidenced by attacks on Chinese-owned shops during the 2006 riots. Many Chinese entrepreneurs and their families fled Tonga for safety.

Women enjoy equal access to education and health care and receive fairly equal treatment in employment. Women hold several senior government jobs, including cabinet positions and the majority of commissioned officer posts in the police. Nevertheless, women cannot own land, and domestic violence against women is not uncommon.