editorial | tonga media threat undermines ferry inquiry

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Threats from Tongan authorities against media to avoid "speculation" over the ferry disaster reflect insensitivity to due process.

For the Attorney General to speak on behalf of a Royal Commission of Inquiry shows a lack of respect for the independence of a duly constituted body.

In Tonga, Attorney General John Cauchi threatened media with "contempt of the Royal Commission" if they failed to show "sensitivity" and avoid "speculation."

His comments follow calls from the royal family in Tonga for "closure" over the sinking of the ferry, Princess Ashika.
This is little short of political interference in proper due process. An Australian, it might be easy to imagine Cauchi should know better. But dropping of criminal charges in the AU$300m Australian Wheat Board bribery scandal shows, along with police raids on Oz newsrooms, appears to have scant regard towards separation of powers.
Earlier, Tongan, Attorney Generals were "told" to resign. Wonder why. Whatever. Given extensive criticism of government in Tonga ignoring months if not years of complaints about a lack of proper marine regulation, the monarchy should not be seen to be limiting debate on issues it has yet to answer.

More simply, it is not for the Attorney General, from any country, to attempt to frontload positions or conditions that have yet to be set by an investigatory mechanism.

Popular Tonga website, Matangi Tonga, has already censored one letter because of threats from the office of the Attorney General there, saying they lacked the financial and legal resources to argue the point.

Authorities in Tonga are exceeding their mandate by claiming that public discussion may be "prejudicial" to commission proceedings.

Not for nothing is the media referred to as the fourth estate. Public debate is a necessary if not vital part of alerting members of such commissions to the parameters of an event, in this case a national disaster costing dozens of lives.

How can Commissioners expose the full truth if they are proscribed by officially sanctioned threats?

The Tonga commission should not follow the example of a similar inquiry in Samoa, where members were allowed to attend hearings but not report them until full findings were made public. Yes, the findings in Samoa, into guns smuggled in on, incredibly, a police boat were admirably full and frank.
So why stop public debate in the first place?

Given an extensive history of human rights restrictions, it is not unjustified for members of the Tongan community to fear the Royal Commission of Inquiry may suffer political interference.
Whether limiting public input or public review, such restrictive measures have no place in a modern democracy claiming membership among the international community. Tonga may be rare among independent Pacific Islands having constitutional protections for freedoms of the press, but it is not alone in signing United Nations and other conventions protecting freedoms of expression, speech and information.

We back the New Zealand Tongan Society for Political Reform, for example, where they warn the commission process should not be used "as a method to formally restrict freedom of speech and suppress the right of the people to seek justice, answers and an avenue for truth and conciliation."

Anything less would be counterproductive and render the commission seriously flawed before it even starts.
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