Monday, January 24, 2011 - An historic 14-day ban on large public meetings or gatherings ending this week in Funafuti must put Tuvalu's leadership on notice that freedom of assembly and expression are key to democratic rule, says the Pacific Freedom Forum, PFF.

The regional media freedom monitoring network says Tuvalu's first-ever invocation of its Public Order Ordinance on January 13 banning public gatherings or meetings on the capital island of Funafuti will have trickle down impacts on free speech and free expression in the small island nation.

The 1973 ordinance has never been used -- til now. It was applied in the wake of a public protest march demanding the resignation from government of the Finance Minister Lotoala Metia on January 13. It's been reported such a move would topple the government's one-seat majority in Tuvalu's Parliament and allow Opposition MP Enele Sopoaga to take up the leadership. Metia and Sopoaga live in Funafuti, as MP's for the outlying island constituency of Nukufetau. Sopoaga, responding to the refusal by the Senior Magistrates Court in Tuvalu to rule on an application from the protestors on the Public Order, says the ban amounts to a gagging of the people of Tuvalu by the government.

"Governance and governments benefit when people have access to information from a free and independant media, and can freely share their opinions in private or public. Issuing a ban in a small place like Tuvalu may villainise those who chose to be part of the protest and warn off others who would want to stand up for their causes in future. Thus, a situation like this would actually need more and not less dialogue and debate around the issue," says PFF chair Susuve Laumaea.

"We are glad to hear that colleagues at Radio Tuvalu feel they able to report freely at this time and encourage the government to support editorial independance of the media," he says.

The Tuvalu Media Corporation is the only mainstream media organisation in the country, and is owned and controlled by the government. National broadcaster Radio Tuvalu falls under the Ministry of Information -- whose Minister is the current PM.

"It's important for governments across the region to apply the governance and human rights principles of the Pacific Plan they themselves endorsed in 2005," says PFF co-chair Monica Miller.

"Tuvalu, like many Pacific nations where the state controls the main media outlets, should also look to its own Constitution guaranteeing freedom of assembly and freedom of expression to guide what happens after the ban ends. It's clear that more Tuvaluans need to feel heard by their leaders and provide input in ways that both voters and their elected leadership are happy with."--ENDS