Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blowing the conch shell

Print media is in crisis throughout the First World. The Washington Post, which brought the American government down in the 1970s, has been losing readers and money for years, and has just been eaten for breakfast by a libertarian IT entrepreneur. Every major New Zealand paper, from Auckland's Herald to the Otago Daily Times, is steadily losing customers.

In the Kingdom of Tonga, though, newspapers are thriving. Tonga has a population of just one hundred thousand, but it boasts half a dozen weekly newspapers, and a number of rags published at less regular intervals. It isn't just the number of papers but the role they play in Tongan life which is impressive. The print media has become a poor relation of television news in the West, but in Tonga it is the newspapers which can make or break the career of a politician or entrepreneur. On outer islands untouched by television broadcasts newspapers are read as reverently as Bibles, even when they have arrived weeks late.
A good deal of the credit for the vigour of the Tongan print media belongs to 'Akilisi Pohiva, the founder and long-time leader of the country's Democratic Party. In the 1980s Pohiva, who was employed as a lecturer at Tonga's Teachers Training College, launched a newsletter called Ko e Kele'a (a kele'a, or conch shell trumpet, was often used to gather crowds and herald important news in traditional Tongan society). Despite its modest size and lack of production values, Pohiva's publication represented a challenge to Tonga's media market, which was dominated by the government-published Tonga Chronicle paper and the official organs of the country's larger churches. Kele'a soon cost Pohiva his job, but it helped inspire the journalist Kalafi Moala to set up a much larger and more professional publication called Taimi o Tonga, which in the 1990s became the loud and proud voice of Tonga's burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

In his book The Island Kingdom Strikes Back Moala describes the battles he had throughout the '90s decade with Tonga's sclerotic aristocracy, which still held almost absolute political power. Moala's defence of freedom of speech saw him spend scores of hours in courtrooms, and at one point landed him in Hua'atolitoli prison, whose grey concrete walls and barred slit windows sit incongruously amongst the banana and coconut groves of central Tongatapu. Moala and Pohiva fell out after the riot that destroyed a third of downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006, and today Taimi o Tonga competes with a revived Ko e Kele'a for the attention of progressive Tongans.
The deputy editor of Ko e Kele'a graduated from the 'Atenisi Institute several years ago, and is one of the more memorable minor characters in Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's acclaimed documentary film about the Institute. Recently 'Ofa dropped into a kava evening at 'Atenisi, and helped the school's current students sing a few songs. In Tongan Ark 'Ofa is a comical figure, who wanders around giggling in a keffiyeh and talks about pinching books from the school's library; today, though, he seems an altogether different proposition. In between songs and cups of kava he talked passionately and precisely about the performance of Ko e Kele'a and the future of the Democratic Party it supports. When I lamented the fact that Akilisi's party had been prevented from forming a government, despite winning 70% of the vote at Tonga's 2010 election, the young activist told me not to worry. "We're aiming to get 100% of the vote next time", he told me.

'Ofa was even able to explain why his paper features a regular column discussing UFOs and extraterrestrials. The column is written in Tongan, and thus tends to defeat me, but I've noticed that it is often sprinkled with non-Tongan names and terms - 'Roswell', 'coverup', 'reptillians' - beloved of the sort of conspiracy theorists who think that ET is alive and well and living in the White House basement. "It's an issue of importance to our readers", 'Ofa told me, and I'm inclined to believe him, given the tremendous popularity of science fiction in the island kingdom.

I'm pleased to see that 'Atenisi has this week placed an advertisement in Ko e Kele'a. I can't seem to post the ad as an image, which is a pity, because it features a marvellous photo of the late Futa Helu, founder of 'Atensi and long-time advisor to the Democratic Party, wearing a powder-blue academic robe as well as a lei made out of dozens of small chocolate bars. Here, though, is the text of the advertisement:

Futa Helu’s Dream Keeps Coming True

For the 40th year, ‘Atenisi Institute continues to offer tertiary courses in social science, humanities, mathematics, science, and the arts … culminating in a B.A. or B.Sc. degree received ad eundem at the University of Auckland.

This semester’s faculty boasts four PhD scholars, a Tongan linguist, and a celebrated vocalist and musician, plus an adjunct instructor from the Alliance Française. The institute’s alumni include Drs Robin Havea (sr lecturer mathematics, USP/Suva), Siosifa Ika (analyst, human services dept., Western Aus.), and ‘Opeti Taliai (dean & professor anthropology, ‘Atenisi) … and three government ministers, ‘Eiki Tu’i’āfitu (health), Dr Viliami Uasike Lātu (commerce), and Siosifa Tu’utafaiva (police).

Since June, the institute has been provisionally registered by the TNQAB, which has recently invited it to apply for prompt accreditation. For the past year, its financial affairs have been managed by Mele Finau Tu’ilotolava, currently unconditionally licensed to practice law in both Tonga and New Zealand.



P.O. BOX 90 HALAANO; TEL. 24819


OR drop by and see us!
 APPLY NOW FOR 2013 – registration open until 16 August to all current or former Form 6 or 7 students regardless of their status, history or location at any secondary school. FUTA HELU scholarships available to needy applicants.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:15 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

I wonder if the newspapers would go the same way in Tonga as they have here if the internet connection was more reliable. Glad they are thriving for now, if only for the ongoing sci-fi thread.

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