17 Oct 2003

Tongan parliament passes controversial amendment

11:47 am on 17 October 2003

A controversial amendment of the Tongan Constitution has been passed in parliament by 16 votes to 11.

The changes to clause seven of the constitution redefine media freedom and says no one shall exercise this right to infringe upon the rights of others and the cultural traditions of the Kingdom.

It would also limit the right of the courts to review royal decisions.

Opponents say it will further curb media freedom, and comes after five unsuccessful attempts by the Government this year to ban the New Zealand produced Tongan paper, Taimi O Tonga.

The Taimi's publisher, Kalafi Moala, says the new restrictions reach beyond the media.

"There is an essence here of where there is a curtailing of freedom of speech which means outside the media even if you a church minister preaching in church, and there is a criticism in church for example concerning the leadership or cultural conditions. You could be arrested or brought to court for that."

Kalafi Moala says the measure will probably end the distribution of the paper in Tonga, but it will continue to be widely available in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

Meanwhile, New Zealand says Tongan lawmakers are likely to face an appeal after they amended the constitution.

The Acting Foreign Minister Marian Hobbs says the move will restrict the freedom of the media.

Ms Hobbs adds it will affect cultural traditions, public law and order, national security and morality.

She described New Zealand as a staunch supporter of media freedom and says the new law is unlikely to be quickly accepted in Tonga.

New Zealand MP Matt Robson says New Zealand should be on the side of those Tongans calling for democracy and end support for the crooks in the Tonga Government.

He says the Tongan Government has shown contempt for its people by passing the amendment.

Mr Robson wants an end to military aid and to ensure that other aid goes only to democratically run grassroots organisations.

He says it is time for New Zealand to show it is on the side of the people.

We have to make a choice; we're either on the side of a bunch of crooks who run Tonga, or we're on the side of the people who are crying out for assistance and help, and I don't believe we should be helping a bunch of crooks who run that country.