Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hot Times in Tonga

Since Monday I've been on the ground in Tonga covering the Pacific Forum leaders meeting and let me tell you it's been an experience.

On the work front it's been quite frustrating. Traditionally these events have been quite media friendly. Generally the media have been able to hang outside the meeting centre and nobble passing politicians for comment pretty much willy nilly.

Well that hasn't been the case here. Security in Nukua'lofa has ranged from insidious to inane. The entire area around where the meetings have been taking place have been cordoned off with police and military checkpoints at virtually every intersection. We arrived on the understanding that our media passes would allow us to get to where we needed to be. The reality has proved to be very much the opposite.

The press conference area has been located within the security zone, however the facilities from which media file are outside of it. Getting in to get to the people we need to speak to has been hit and miss at best, and nigh impossible at worst. The checkpoint that lets you through in the morning is invariably the one that steadfastly refuses to let you through in the afternoon. There's no rhyme nor reason to it either. Invariably we're sent via another route where the same situation repeats all over again.

Getting tetchy gets you nowhere, nor does courtesy, or even abject pleading. The poor blokes at TV3 missed a stand-up with NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark on Tuesday because they were turned back at three separate checkpoints. Myself and two colleagues made it barely in time after walking about 1.5 km in a circuitous route - the direct path was a mere 500 metres.

And some of the restrictions have been bizarre. In Vava'u, at the leader's retreat on Wednesday, cameramen were even forbidden from taking shots of the harbour.

As far as Tongan security is concerned we in the media are the enemy and all our security passes do is serve to identify us. On that basis coverage has been limited to Helen Clark and Alexander Downer which is not what we're here for. We'd love to talk to the other Pacific leaders but the problem's been we can't get anywhere near them. Frustrating doesn't even begin to sum it up.

At times this frustration has boiled over, not into outright confrontation, but pretty close to it. On Tuesday the media were told the beginning of the plenary session would be open so photographers could get shots. They were also told it was for five minutes and then everyone would have to leave. For those in print and radio it meant the event was pretty meaningless so most abstained from attending. However a decision was made to allow the media to stay - that saw the rest of us descend like a horde of locusts seeking admittance.

Were we let? Not bloody likely.

This sparked an exchange with security. Even press secretaries were lobbying for us to be let in but the police were resolute, no-one would pass. Tempers flared and officials were told pretty bluntly what our opinions were. The next day the Fiji Times ran a story quoting Tongan Government official Kitione Mokofisi (who'd coincidentally been lurking in the background when the fracas occurred) describing Australasian journalists as rude and insulting. He even went so far as to attack the female Kiwi journalists for being tasteless in their dress sense.

Well not only did Mr Mokofisi misquote an Aussie journalist, accusing him of calling Fijian Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama a leper (the question was did he feel like he was being treated like a leper), but he was completely wrong about his accusations against the female Kiwi press corp. As the Tongan King had officiated the official opening ceremony in the morning they'd made sure their legs and shoulders were covered and no excess skin was on display. Mokofisi's attack was no more than a case of sour grapes and distracting attention away from the obstructive nature Tonga had imposed on the Forum coverage.

It's also worth noting that the Fiji Times never bothered talking to either the New Zealand or the Australian media about the incident.

Let me point out that my criticism is restricted to the officials. I've found the Tongan people to be absolutely fantastic. Their courtesy and cheer is like a breath of fresh air to those of us who have to deal with the surly, cynical, and abrasive day to day lifestyle at home. Considering the challenges they have to put up with (marginal infrastructure, indifferent politicians) they're an overwhelmingly hospitable people.

PS - if you ever visit, skip Nukua'lofa and head for Vava'u. It's superb.

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