CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Tonga

Live rating: Narrowed

Last updated on 15.01.2019 at 10:53

Tonga-Overview

The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago consisting of 176 islands, 26 of which are inhabited. Tonga is a constitutional monarchy in which civic space freedoms are constitutionally protected and mostly respected in practice.

read more

Latest Civicus alert

See all CIVICUS Alerts

from the news feed

view the news feed
Transgender community continues struggle against rising tide of religious intolerance

Transgender community continues struggle against rising tide of religious intolerance

Transgender people living in Tonga known locally as ‘leitis’ continue to struggle against a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance against the community in the South Pacific , Press freedom remains a concern in Tonga and the country dropped two places in the Reporters without Borders, World Press Freedom rankings to 51 in 2018

Expression

Film festival launches with documentary on the transgender community

In November 2018, Tonga launched the fourth Nuku’alofa International Film Festival featuring the documentary "Leitis in Waiting".

The film is about transgender people living in Tonga – known locally as ‘leitis’ - and tells a story of the transgender struggle against a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance against the transgender community in the South Pacific kingdom.

"Leitis in Waiting" closely follows Joey Joleen Mataele, a devout Catholic of a noble descent who organises a beauty pageant presided over by Princess Salote Mafileʻo Pilolevu Tuita. Mataele also provides shelter and training for a young "leiti" contestant who has been rejected by the family.

While in some cases "leitis" are accepted as caretakers and workers, they are also outlawed, shunned and even face jail time. Tonga's Criminal Offences Act criminalises cross dressing and sodomy, with both carrying jail terms of up to 10 years.

The Tongan Leitis Association featured in the documentary is publicly advocating for decriminalisation. However, this comes at a time of heightened religious tension in the country, with American-funded televangelists fuelling a new campaign against the LGBT community in Tonga.

Government trying to control public information

Press freedom remains a concern in Tonga and the country dropped two places in the Reporters without Borders, World Press Freedom Index rankings, to 51 in 2018. Since the re-election of Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva's party in 2017 there has been growing tension between the government and journalists and the Prime Minister has had constant clashes with the state-owned Tongan Broadcasting Commission (TBC).

In 2017, the Prime Minister removed the Tongan Broadcasting Commission (TBC) news editor Laumanu Petelo and news manager Viola Ulakai from their positions in the newsroom, accusing them of “unfair reporting” of the government. He has also described them as "an enemy of government" at one stage.

In May 2018, Kalafi Moala, a prominent publisher in Tonga raised concerns that “media freedom and access to information is the worst he has seen”. Moala said that the government was trying to control channels of public information and cited the example of the removal of senior journalists from the State Broadcasting newsroom. Kalafi Moala spent time in jail in 1996 for contempt of parliament after reporting on proceedings.

In January 2018, Tonga received a recommendation at the UN Human Rights Council, during its human rights review session, to “take measures to reinforce protections for freedom of expression, including guaranteeing the independence of public and private media”.

Association

Freedom of association is legally recognised and respected in practice in Tonga. Civil society organisations are able to form and operate freely.

Freedom of association is legally recognised and respected in practice in Tonga. Civil society organisations are able to form and operate freely. The process to follow when registering an organisation is relatively straightforward and is governed by the Charitable Trusts Act, the Incorporated Societies Act, and the Cooperative Societies Act. In order to obtain charitable status, the organisation’s activities or aims must be for public purposes, meaning that the benefit must be available to a large part of the community. In addition, it must not be carried out for the benefit or profit of any individual. Human rights defenders in Tonga enjoy an enabling environment.

Peaceful Assembly

Tonga’s Constitution establishes that “All people shall be free to send letters or petitions to the King or Legislative Assembly and to meet and consult concerning matters about which they think it right to petition the King or Legislative Assembly to pass or repeal enactments provided that they meet peaceably without arms and without disorder.”

Tonga’s Constitution establishes that “All people shall be free to send letters or petitions to the King or Legislative Assembly and to meet and consult concerning matters about which they think it right to petition the King or Legislative Assembly to pass or repeal enactments provided that they meet peaceably without arms and without disorder.” In practice, protests are rare in Tonga, but cover a range of issues including opposition to international human rights treaties, the powers of the king and socio-economic issues. Most remain peaceful although there was notable violence during protests which turned into riots in 2006.

Expression

The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, however, a 2003 amendment introduces some restrictions.

The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, however, a 2003 amendment introduces some restrictions. Although activists and journalists are able to express their views freely in Tonga, there have been some cases where the authorities have abused their power to censor the media, through licensing and defamation legislation. In a recent case, the government harassed female journalist Viola Ulakai because she tried to obtain information regarding a controversial reform proposed by the Ministry of Education. Tonga has developed an access to information policy, however final approval of the bill is still pending.