Freedom in the World
Tonga is an electoral democracy. The unicameral Legislative Assembly has 26 members, including 17 popularly elected representatives and 9 nobles elected by their peers; all members serve four-year terms. The king retains the power to appoint the chief justice, judges of the court of appeal, and the attorney general on the advice of the privy council. The privy council, whose members are appointed by the king, lost its power to pass legislation following changes to the government structure in 2010. Additionally, the Legislative Assembly—rather than the king—now selects the prime minister.
Prodemocracy candidates have typically aligned with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which is not a formal party. However, new parties formed ahead of the November 2010 elections, including DPFI, the Democratic Labor Party, the Sustainable Nation-Building Party, and the People’s Democratic Party.
Widespread official corruption is a major source of public discontent. The royals, nobles, and their top associates have allegedly used state assets for personal benefit, and transparency and accountability are lacking. Tonga was ranked 101 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, the government has a history of suppressing media criticism. A Department of Information oversees all media reporting. Nevertheless, letters to the editor and commentaries critical of the government appear regularly in all newspapers, including those owned by the state or in which the state owns shares. In December 2010, the government terminated the broadcasting license of the privately-owned FM88.1, claiming the decision was prompted by public complaints against the station. Internet access is not restricted, and the number of users has increased despite high costs and lack of infrastructure.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. Academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.
Criticism of the monarchy is not tolerated. In August 2010, a prodemocracy member of parliament, Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva, was suspended for two months after he questioned the government’s financing of improvements to the royal palace in such a poor economy.
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld. While those engaging in protests and marches have faced government harassment in the past, there were no reported crackdowns on demonstrations by law enforcement officials in 2010. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.
The judiciary is generally independent, and traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Criminal suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. However, a shortage of judges has created serious backlogs; only 2 of 10 magistrate seats had been filled by the end of September 2010. Nobles have increasingly faced scrutiny in society and the courts. In December 2010, two nobles, who had recently been elected to the parliament, were charged with the illegal possession of firearms and drugs. Prisons are basic, and are only lightly guarded, as violent crimes are rare. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse.
Tensions between Tongans and ethnic Chinese have worsened in recent years, largely due to resentment over the perceived Chinese domination of the economy.
Women enjoy equal access to education and health care and receive fairly equal treatment in employment. Women hold several senior government jobs, including cabinet positions and the majority of commissioned officer posts in the police force. Nevertheless, no women were elected in the 2010 elections, women cannot own land, and domestic violence against women is common. In 2009, the parliament rejected ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, claiming it conflicts with Tongan culture by providing women with land ownership rights and allowing abortion and same-sex marriage.