By His Excellency Adrian Morrison, Australian High Commissioner to Tonga
Most Tongans are familiar with Australia’s development assistance in health, agriculture, and education. They’ve probably seen the big red kangaroos on aid packages and tarpaulins Australia delivered in the wake of humanitarian disasters like Cyclone Gita, and they may know about some of the ways Australia is helping Tonga and other Pacific nations prepare to deal with COVID-19.
But there is another area where Australia supports Tonga, one which many Tongans may be unaware of, one that is particularly relevant in light of World Press Freedom Day (3 May). That is our support for Tonga’s media through the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme, or PACMAS, which aims to facilitate discourse across government, business and civil society throughout the region via Pacific media.
In recent years, PACMAS has provided training for Tongan journalists, government officials and NGOs on topics ranging from public communication during natural disasters to gender-sensitive reporting of domestic violence. PACMAS has also contributed to the establishment of the Tonga Media Association, and Australia has provided technical support to Tonga Broadcasting Commission, including the servicing and upgrading of radio antennas.
Australia’s development programs in the Pacific include programs to strengthen Pacific media because we see a free and active press as a vital part of any true democracy.
Journalists hold governments and others to account and keep the public informed about the issues that are important to them, whether it’s the latest information on COVID-19 or the score in a Mate Ma’a Tonga game.
The freedom of the press is the freedom of the people to express themselves, to share ideas and to scrutinise those in positions of power – whether that is in government, politics, business or society more generally. That is a freedom worth celebrating – and protecting.
The ideal of a free press and freedom of expression has a long history in Tonga. His Majesty King Tupou I protected it in law when he proclaimed in the constitution of 1875: “It shall be lawful for all people to speak, write, and print their minds and opinions, and no law shall be enacted to
forbid this for ever.”Of course, the fact that media freedom is protected by the constitution in Tonga does not mean it is not contested on occasion. In all countries, including Australia, journalism is sometimes a struggle between those with something to say and those who would rather they did not say it.
But the fact Tonga has a thriving media – including an independent national broadcaster with two TV channels and a radio station, several weekly newspapers, commercial radio and online news outlets – is a testament to the resilience of Tonga’s journalists, as well as the thirst of the Tongan people for locally-produced news, opinion and entertainment.
Yet it is not enough for the media to be popular – or even for it to be free. It must also be trusted.
We live in an age where traditional media and professional journalists no longer have a monopoly on the public’s attention. Social media and mobile technology have transformed the way people consume news, to the extent some might question whether journalists are even necessary. Maybe they just slow things down, get in the way, impose their own agendas, or bother us unnecessarily with opinions that are different but not necessarily better than our own.
Why do we need a gatekeeper, when the floodgates of Google and Facebook and Twitter are already thrown open, and we are free to grab whatever eye-catching bit of clickbait floats past our newsfeed?
In the end, it comes down to trust. Good news outlets – good journalists – earn their audience’s trust. They are trusted to have access to credible information, and to get reporters on the ground quickly when newsworthy events happen.
They are trusted to be even-handed – not necessarily by providing equal column inches to both sides of a debate, since both sides don’t always have equal claims to moral or scientific legitimacy, but by providing space for a variety of voices and avoiding the temptation to make up the reader’s mind for them.
Good news outlets are trusted to employ good journalists – people with high ethical standards, inquiring minds, and the ability to tell a story compellingly.
With pressing regional issues like COVID-19, climate change, and violence against women and girls, it is important that people in Pacific countries have reliable sources of information they can trust to help them make informed decisions and to serve as the basis for credible opinions and respectful debate.
And it is equally important that journalists are able to provide that information without undue censorship or intimidation. These are the principles that are championed on World Press Freedom Day. And these are the goals of Australia’s support for journalists and the media in Tonga and other Pacific countries.
World Press Freedom Day was celebrated on 3 May 2020. The theme for this year is "Journalism without Fear or Favour".