The “Facts” about the Tonga Ferry Sinking

By definition, a fact is something that is proven and true.  Ideally it would be nice to think that the information Tongans receive about the sinking of Ashika Ferry last week would all be factual.   But in a place like Tonga, where the media is controlled by the government, getting the “facts” can be difficult. 

While there are some independent media voices, you still need a “newspaper publishing license” from the government.  If you upset the wrong person, your license to publish will be terminated.   For the most part, the government can decide what it will release to the public and what it will keep secret.   Neither the public nor the media have any formal right to gain access to official documents and reports in Tonga.

The “coconut wireless” or word of mouth is still very much alive in Tonga, but that system has its faults because you often hear so many conflicting stories, it is hard to know what is true and what is speculation. 

But times are changing. Tonga may be a remote island country but it is no longer an island of information.   Media from other parts of the world are covering the ferry sinking and unlike the Tongan based news organizations who may be fearful of criticizing the government and the King, these foreign news organizations can ask the tough questions and what they write is available in Tonga via the Internet.

I wrote a post last week called “Grief turns to Anger in Tonga” in which I talked about the anger that some Tongans have directed toward the Tongan King, who left on a four month holiday the day after the Ashika Ferry went down.   After that post, I exchanged emails with another volunteer who lives in Tongatapu, who says he hasn’t heard any criticism of the King , instead saying people are mad at the Prime Minister..   And one of the independent Tongan newspapers, Matangi Online has not made a big deal out of the King’s departure.  The editor of that paper was quoted in the New Zealand Herald last week.

Matangi Tonga newspaper editor Pesi Fonua yesterday said that Tongans living at home appeared untroubled by King George's rapid departure for Edinburgh.

"There's no uproar by the people who lost loved ones. There doesn't seem to be any feeling about that."

In Scotland, where the King is beginning his four month vacation, a news organization has a very different story.

Playboy king's Scottish holiday sparks anger

Heilala Delasau, a Tongan human rights activist, said: "The king is partly to blame and should be held liable. He should have stayed to help. He is a leader and should be helping his people at this time."

Sitiveni Lilo, a retired Tongan journalist living in Wellington, New Zealand, said: "Tonga is not a full democracy and people are afraid to speak out.  "People are concentrating on their loss, but there is also deep anger that the king left instead of staying to command the rescue operation and attend memorial services."

Protesters say they are exasperated by the wealthy playboy king, who earned the nickname "Oddball" because of his habit of riding around his Pacific island nation in a London taxi.

With his penchant for elaborate uniforms and remote-controlled boats and toys, (King) Tupou has a reputation as an eccentric out of touch with reality.

Closer to Tonga, the New Zealand Herald has the following in their Sunday edition this morning.

Tongan king's critics hit out

Mateni Tapueluelu, editor of the independent Taimi o Tonga newspaper, said yesterday he was infuriated by the reports from Scotland and expected the Tongan public to feel the same way.

"It's just going to make people angry, they're going to see the monarchy as useless and an expensive irrelevance. At best he's a waste of money," said Tapueluelu.

"When the going gets tough, he gets going: Leaving his people to swim or sink."Tapueluelu said there was growing dissatisfaction with the Tongan, royal-dominated Government as well over its handling of the Ashika tragedy.

"I'm beginning to hear talk that we should have an interim government," he said, adding that he hoped a "peaceful transition of power is ensured".

The Latest “Facts”nz_navy_sonar-image

Now to the “facts”, or what I think are the latest “facts”.

Officially there are still 93 people missing and presumed dead.   The ship was located last week in 330 feet of water, making it too deep for divers to recover the bodies of those who perished.  One report says it would cost $25 million New Zealand dollars (About US$17 million) to do a full recovery of the ship, money that Tonga does not have.   Right now, Tongans have accepted that their loved ones are not going to be coming back, but they are still waiting until they learn if they will get the bodies back before they do any funerals.  The Tongan Transportation Minister has resigned from his job and Tongans are doing their best to support each other in this time of tragedy and yes, the King is on vacation in Europe.

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