THE MAN who was once jailed for his stand for press freedom has now breached the same freedom by ordering a Government journalist to be suspended “for asking hard questions.”
Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva was a member of Parliament who leaked information to the media in 1996 resulting in a contempt of Parliament case, in which he was jailed together with the two journalists who published the information.
But as Tonga’s Prime Minister twenty years later, Mr. Pohiva issued an order on Wednesday to his Minister of Public Enterprises, Poasi Tei, to suspend veteran journalist Mrs. Viola Ulakai “until further investigation. Mr. Tei is responsible for the Tonga Broadcasting Commission through a selected Board of Directors,
The Prime Minister has accused Mrs. Ulakai of being too insistent with her questions particularly with issues regarding reform that he as Minister of Education is bringing about in the Ministry of Education. The fallout and mess in the Ministry after the 2015 exam results has been a confusing issue of much public discussion.
Mrs. Ulakai has been a journalist with the Government Broadcasting for twenty- six (26) years. She is now the head of news at Tonga’s largest news organization.
In the past few weeks, Mrs. Ulakai has been trying unsuccessfully to set up a Press Conference between the media and the Prime Minister to answer questions regarding education.
In the meantime a Press Release was issued last week by the Prime Minister’s Office accusing Mrs. Ulakai of trying to set up the Press Conference as something endorsed by the Tonga Media Council, while it was allegedly only a personal arrangement of her own.
The Tonga Media Council chair, Lady Luseane Luani, responded in support of the Prime Minister’s Office, saying Mrs. Ulakai was “not doing it for the Media Council”, a statement that has been regarded by other journalists as a betrayal of Mrs. Ulakai.
Mrs. Ulakai is on the Board of Directors of the Tonga Media Council, and she herself has been the one that set up previous Press Conferences on behalf of the Council.
Other Directors of the Media Council, like Filo ‘Akau’ola, owner of the Talaki newspaper, has come out in support of Ulakai, stating that there was an understanding Mrs. Ulakai would organize the Press Conferences.
Mr. Pohiva, since the beginning of his administration in January of 2015 has consistently been aloof and selective on the media he would talk to, and who would interview him.
Because Mrs. Ulakai was the head of news at the Government Radio and Television, she usually did the interviews with the leaders of Government. But the Prime Minister took exception to her hard questioning. He claimed that Mrs. Ulakai usually takes another angle to ask the same question when he already provided the answer.
The Prime Minister’s Office gave out the notion that Mrs. Ulakai was opposed to the Prime Minister, and that she was backed by opponents to his reform program at the Ministry of Education.
Mrs. Ulakai shared publicly her frustration at not being given the opportunity to ask questions that have not been answered or even spun to support a perspective in question.
“I am only trying to do my job,” she told reporters in Nuku’alofa.
Mrs. Ulakai did not break any laws, neither did she breached any work ethics in accordance with her contract at the Tonga Broadcasting Commission. She is being persecuted for doing her job. And a man who promised press freedom to Tongans is driving that persecution.
As this report goes out, Mrs. Viola Ulakai has been officially suspended from the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, as of Thursday 21 April 2016, on order from the Prime Minister.