Tonga: Song on ferry tragedy taken off airwaves while parliament calls for media outlets to retract their reporting
Tonga’s civic space is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Ongoing concerns documented include the existence of criminal defamation laws, restrictions on the media and risks faced by the LGBTQI+ community.
In August 2023, 10 MPs filed a motion for a vote of no confidence against their Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni Hu'akavameiliku. They accused the prime minister of mismanaging the state-owned Airlines Lulutai, as well as not following appropriate procedures in allocating funds. The prime minister denied the allegations. However, the motion of no confidence failed to win support following a vote.
Song on ferry tragedy removed by national broadcaster
In July 2023, it was reported that the Tonga Broadcasting Commission had banned a song to commemorate a 2009 ferry tragedy.
Tali Kinikini criticised the then government in his song for purchasing the doomed ferry which sank to the bottom of the ocean in August 2009 killing 74 people. In the song he likens buying Princess Ashika, the name of the ferry, to purchasing a ‘coffin’.
According to Kaniva News, the report of the Royal Commission into the disaster said the “evidence as to the unseaworthiness and appalling state of the vessel is overwhelming and compelling.” The then government of Prime Minister Feleti Sevele was accused of showing a lack of any official due diligence in purchasing the ferry. A court in Tonga convicted four men of manslaughter in connection with the sinking.
The composer said he still stood by the lyrics of his song. After the release of the song, the Tonga Broadcasting Commission pulled it off air. The broadcaster later asked him to remove a line which said, in Tongan, the government was purchasing a coffin. Kinikini refused the request.
Tongan Parliament demands retraction from two news outlets
In August 2023, the Tonga Legislative Assembly called on two media outlets to correct information regarding parliament.
The parliament’s warning mostly targeted an article published by Matangi Tonga Online on 22nd August 2023, claiming that radio broadcasts had been silenced on 15th August during debates on the Auditor General’s Report for 2021-2022. Parliament said that the disruption was not on that day and the news outlet corrected it.
However, the parliamentary statement also called on Kaniva News to retract its statement. In response Kaniva News said it stood by its story and rejected parliament’s demand for a retraction.
Kaniva News said that it did not publish anything about the claims that the radio stations were silenced during the debate on the Auditor General’s Report but had reported that the last time the parliament updated its Hansards on its website was in June 2023 and that Parliament no longer paid for the live broadcasting of the debates.