Transgender community continues struggle against rising tide of religious intolerance


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”.