Call to support south-east Ambrym water project

Earlier this week the prime minister of Tonga, Akilisi Pohiva, made a startling announcement.

He said that he was proposing to introduce a piece of legislation that would see the national broadcaster closed down or sold off. One of the main reasons he gave for this position is that Tonga Broadcasting does not do a good enough job of supporting the government.

Tensions between the prime minister and the national broadcaster are not new in Tonga (so maybe the announcement wasn’t that startling). I heard a lot about them late last year when I spent a week working with media professionals from a number of organisations. And neither is this sort of tension something that is specific to Tonga. Across the region, we can point to many instances of where governments have tried to control the media.

We have seen outright censorship, manipulation of ownership laws, threats to journalists and editors, denial of access to opposition MPs, and more. Sometimes we hear governments make reference to the need for the media to act more responsibly or ethically. There are times when these calls are justified. Often they are code for ‘they are saying nasty things about us and we need to make that stop’. Actions of this type are, at their heart anti-democratic.

State owned media organisations are particularly vulnerable. They rely on government funding for their existence. This means that they are often walking a fine line between fulfilling their democratic function of being a public watchdog and not biting the hand that feeds them so hard that they end up starving.

Prime Minister Pohiva’s statement prompted a strong response from the Pacific Freedom Forum in which they pointed out:

“It is not the job of any news media to support the government of the day, but to represent the public — and they must be ethical when reporting criticism.”

Quite so. The media is not government’s PR agency. The media’s responsibility to the public requires that government activity is appropriately reported, analysed, questioned, and criticised. Journalistic training and standards require that all of these things be done ethically. Even if there are instances of a media professional or organisation acting unethically, that does not justify threats to undermine the essential role of the media as a whole.

Democracy is a process, not a product. When Fiji held elections in 2014, I commented that this was just the ‘first step’ in establishing a democracy in that country. Building and sustaining a true democratic culture requires ongoing activity across the whole of society.

The media plays a crucial role in providing good quality information to citizens to inform how they engage with the democratic process. That good quality information needs to include what government is doing well, what government is doing badly, and a range of things in between. An independent media that is able to act free from political interference and intimidation is an essential part of a democratic culture.

The PFF is right to push back so strongly against claims that the media is responsible for supporting the government. If this sort of thinking is allowed to persist, there is a risk of a ‘chilling factor’ coming into play.

This already exists in some places, including Vanuatu, where journalists will say things along the lines of ‘we have to be careful that we don’t undermine development by being negative about the government’. It is certainly the case that the media has a responsibility to consider HOW something is reported. Journalists and editors make decisions of this type every day to ensure that they are not sensationalising things or presenting material in a way that might inflame a sensitive situation.

But that is very different from promoting an atmosphere in which the media feels constrained about WHAT can be reported. Actions and inactions of government (both positive and negative) are matters of public interest. We expect and need our media professionals to be presenting facts and analysis about them in a robust manner.

If and when we see attempts by politicians, public servants or others in authority to constrain what the media tell us, we should be alarmed. We should express our concern in the strongest terms. It’s not about protecting journalists, newspapers and broadcasters. It’s about protecting our democracy.

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