Pacific Freedom Forum Media Release
Kele’a damages ruling excessive, says Pacific Freedom Forum
For immediate release: Thursday 16 April 2009: The Pacific Freedom Forum, a regional media freedom and advocacy organization has expressed its concern about what appears to be an excessive and punitively draconian, defamation order handed down on April 8, by the Tongan Supreme Court against the local newspaper, Kele'a and its staff.
The finding was reported by Matangi Tonga Online on April 9, 2009.
Kele'a and its staff were ordered to pay TOP 500,000 (US$ 229,505.20) to the defamed individual, plus their costs.
"By no means does the Pacific Freedom Forum object to the finding of the Supreme Court, nor do we support what appears to be reckless and irresponsible publication of defamatory material by any media outlet," says Pacific Freedom Forum chair Susuve Laumaea, of Papua New Guinea.
"But the order imposed by the Tongan Supreme Court is too severe and borders on fantasy when it comes to payment in a nation where, on a per capita basis, the fine would be equivalent to an $8.3 million judgement in New Zealand - an unheard of amount even for a much bigger country and economy,” says.
“It is clear the order will bankrupt both the newspaper and its staff and send people home.”
PFF co-chair Monica Miller of American Samoa says the finding “brings to mind the severe fine and suspended sentences imposed on the Fiji Times' and its then senior staff over an admittedly contemptful publication of a letter in January, 2009."
"There is a place for punitive damages to be imposed on a media outlet for especially reckless and irresponsible publication which damages a person's valuable reputation, and, according to Matangi Tonga, publishing a statement from the Tongan Prime Minister's office dated April 8, 2009, Kele'a seems to have behaved both recklessly, and irresponsibly, throughout this whole affair."
"The Pacific Freedom Forum trusts that this severe and draconian fine imposed on a newspaper will not set a precedent for other Tongan or Pacific Region courts to use such methods to control or intimidate the media in their respective countries," Miller says. ENDS
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The Pacific Freedom Forum are a regional and global online network of Pacific media colleagues, with the specific intent of raising awareness and advocacy of the right of Pacific people to enjoy freedom of expression and be served by a free and independent media.
We believe in the critical and basic link between these freedoms, and the vision of democratic and participatory governance pledged by our leaders in their endorsement of the Pacific Plan and other commitments to good governance.
In support of the above, our key focus is monitoring threats to media freedom and bringing issues of concern to the attention of the wider regional and international community.