New law could mean the sack for civil servants who use emojis the government doesn’t like

Kaniva News commentary

A new law means that Tongan civil servants could be charged with criticising the government if somebody decides they have used an offensive emoji online.

Civil Servants need to be very careful about using social media

That’s one entirely possible interpretation of a new law which was revealed by Tonga Broadcasting Commission this week.

But while the law sounds absurd, it is no joke, because people could lose their jobs.

It is part of an attempt by the government to limit the right of civil servants to freedom of expression, even, apparently, when they are speaking in a completely private capacity.

This is in complete contrast to New Zealand where civil servants have the same rights to freedom of speech and political activity in their private lives as other New Zealanders.

Attorney General Linda Folaumoetu’i told the TBC civil servants could be punished under the law for defamation in writing or emojis.

The law can be used against civil servants who support a group on social media whose political views go against the government and could cause disorder.

Mrs Folaumoetu’i said civil servants must maintain high standards of behaviour and treat political and civil service colleagues with respect.

“They have to be politically independent.”

All civil servants “must be very cautious” about any information they intended to release on social media to support any political cause, she said in Tongan.

The government will come after its civil servants if they used reaction signals like “thumb up or like” to support any opposing political views (“poupou ki ha ngaahi tui fakapolitikale kehe”,) Folaumoetu’i said during an interview in Tongan with TBC.

No details or any documents about the new law have been released to the media or published on the Attorney General’s Office website.

Public Service Commission CEO Dr Lia Maka said this law controlled all civil servants and those who worked for government on contract basis, she told Television Tonga.

They could not criticise the government through social media and those who have personal accounts on all social media platforms including Facebook, Tumblr, Tweeter, Instagram, Youtube, Whatsapp and Snap Chat had to understand this law.

Punishment could include dismissal.

Dr Maka said the law was discussed with different groups and government CEOs before it was submitted to the Attorney General Office.

“Although everyone has a right to freedom of speech they have to all come under the government’s Code of Ethics,” Dr Maka told the Television.

The civil servants also are not allowed to release any confidential information.

Folaumoetu’i also said the law protects the Royal Family and any attempt to insult them.

Civil servants who used government technology for their social media use as well as using their own technologies while at works could be investigated and punished under this law.

Undemocratic

The Tongan governments actions are in line with attempts  by governments in many undemocratic countries to gag civil servants and prevent them from enjoying the rights of ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, even some supposedly democratic nations have tried to follow this trend.

Earlier this year an Australian civil servant quit his job as a policy officer after being threatened with the sack if he didn’t delete a blog post on how Covid-19 had benefited big tech companies. The department’s actions appear in conflict with civil servants’ right to make “public comment in an unofficial capacity,” which is set out in the Australian Public Servants’ Code of Conduct.

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