Threat to radio hits press freedom in Tahiti

The most popular radio station in French Polynesia faces closure, as it appeals a court fine that threatens to drive it out of business. For the community station Radio Tefana, it’s future is tied to a long-running legal attack against politician Oscar Manutahi Temaru, former President of French Polynesia and a long-standing champion of independence for the French  Pacific dependency.

This month in Tahiti, Radio Tefana goes to court to appeal a fine of 100 million CFP French Pacific francs (nearly US$1 million), issued for alleged abuse of funds to benefit Temaru’s political party. With an annual budget a third of this amount, the 36-year-old radio station can’t afford this fine and a dozen journalists may lose their jobs. 

The station is based in the commune (municipality) of Faa’a, on the outskirts of the capital Papeete. Faa’a, which hosts Tahiti’s international airport, is the largest commune in the country and has long been a stronghold for the independence party Tavini Huiraatira no Te Ao Maohi, led by Oscar Temaru since its founding in the 1970s.

A year after Temaru’s election as Mayor of Faa’a in March 1983, Tahiti was hammered by cyclone Veena. Temaru helped create a radio station to inform the local population of Faa’a about post-cyclone relief.

Today, Heinui Le Caill heads the non-profit association that manages the radio station Te Reo O Tefana. Le Caill told Islands Business that Tefana had been a feature of French Polynesia’s media landscape for nearly four decades.

“Radio Tefana was created in August 1984 by the Mayor of Faa’a at the time of Cyclone Veena, to share information with community on how to protect themselves after the cyclone,” he said. “Bit by bit, it started to take up the issue of nuclear testing and the effect of the tests on the environment and the people. It also started to highlight Maohi culture and identity within the French system we live under.”

In its early days, the radio station benefited from the liberalisation of media laws under French President Francois Mitterrand, which allowed community radio greater access to the FM band.

Le Caill said that the station gradually expanded its audience over the five archipelagos of French Polynesia: “At first, Radio Tefana could only be heard in Tahiti, Moorea and the Windward Islands, but today we broadcast across most of the country, thanks to satellite technology. We’re the most listened to station in French Polynesia. It’s no longer just a community radio station, it serves the country and the people.”

Radio for the people

Polling shows that Radio Tefana is the most listened to radio station in French Polynesia, with 20 per cent of audience share and nearly 40,000 listeners every day. Le Caill stresses that this audience is maintained because the station prioritises local culture: “The station mostly broadcasts in reo Maohi – 80 per cent of its programs are in Tahitian. It serves as a platform for the Maohi population to speak in its own language.”

The station has long provided a platform for a range of community, women’s and educational groups, and proudly features local artists and musicians, prioritising Polynesian culture on the airwaves. Tefana is well known for programs like ‘Parau tumu’ or ‘Te vevo’, which feature local writers, poets, musicians and artists.

The breadth of its programming reflects the concerns of the local community. Tefana is open to church and non-government organisations to share community service announcements. It provides a timeslot to all major religious denominations, and also includes a two hour program for the families of prisoners to broadcast messages to inmates at Nuutania prison in Faa’a (the ageing and overcrowded jail is notorious for the poor conditions that house many young Maohi on remand). Over the last year, Radio Tefana has broadcast – without payment – information about Covid-19  from the French Ministry of Health and local medical authorities, promoting prevention messages during the coronavirus pandemic.

The station is managed by a non-profit organisation known as Te Reo o Tefana – the voice of Tefana (the former name of Faa’a municipality). Managed by a Board of Directors, it comes under a French law from 1901 that governs community organisations. Although the radio station updated its management and statutes in 2008, it retains its long-standing political commitment, with the objective to “promote the anti-nuclear struggle and the accession to sovereignty.” However the current statutes also stress that “Radio Tefana must be open to all political sensibilities without exception and that the public money it receives must be justified by the general interest.”

Legal woes

The fate of Radio Tefana is entangled in a complex set of legal battles targeting Oscar Temaru.

As President of French Polynesia in 2013, Temaru earned the ire of the French government when he gained support from Pacific nations to have French Polynesia re-listed as a non-self-governing territory, through a resolution of  the UN General Assembly. This anger was inflamed in October 2018, when the long-standing anti-nuclear activist lodged a complaint at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, condemning France for crimes against humanity for the 193 French nuclear tests conducted at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.

“The French started the investigation around Radio Tefana around 2013-17,” Temaru explains. “But on 2 October 2018, I filed a complaint against the former Presidents of France – Chirac, Giscard D’Estaing, Mitterrand, Hollande and the current President Mr. Macron. A couple of days later, Overseas Minister Annick Girardin said on TV that they will never let this go, meaning there will be retaliation by the French government.”

For Heinui Le Caill, it was only after the ICC nuclear case was publicised that police and prosecutors ramped up the pressure.

“Our legal issues dragged on from 2010 to 2017, when three of us were charged with abuse of funds in favour of Oscar Temaru – those affected were myself as president of the radio association, the former president Vito Maamaatuaiahutapu and Mr. Temaru himself as Mayor of Faa’a,” Le Caill told Islands Business.

“However ever since Mr. Temaru lodged his case about crimes against humanity, our problems have gotten worse. When the gendarmes first called us to the police station, we were not aware that we would be taken into custody. We’ve been very open with the police since this all began: we sent them all the documents they requested in the interests of transparency, so I was really shocked to be treated like a criminal.”

As Islands Business reported last June, the French Prosecutor in Papeete Herve Leroy expanded a series of legal cases targeting Temaru, leading to the seizure of his personal assets.

When police called in Le Caill, Maamaatuaiahutapu and Temaru for questioning, the authorities’ approach belied Temaru’s status as a former President of French Polynesia.

“I was detained by the gendarmerie all day long,” Temaru said. “I didn’t know what was going on. They said ‘You’re in custody and you can’t use your phone any more – maybe you’ll spend the night here.’ Afterwards they started their investigation and we’ve been to the court of first instance. I was convicted and given a 6 month suspended sentence and 5 million CFP fine. I appealed that decision, but the Prosecutor Leroy made a press conference claiming I had been sentenced, so I sued him for defamation – this is now before the court in New Caledonia.”

Temaru claimed that new charges came after the victory of the Fritch government in April-May 2018 elections: “We had territorial elections in 2018 and the special commission monitoring the vote decided not to approve our campaign accounts for 13 million CFP expenses. Our file was sent to the Conseil d’Etat in Paris [France’s supreme court for administrative justice] and a report from there said it was all OK. However a couple of weeks later, the French High Commissioner wrote to me saying ‘You’re not in the Territorial Assembly any more – you’re out!’ This was just a couple of weeks after I had lodged the nuclear case and spoken at the United Nations.”

Alongside Temaru, the community association Te Reo O Tefana was fined 100 million CFP French Pacific francs (more than US$1,000,000) in June 2019, for ‘receiving a benefit from the illegal use of assets by an elected official in a matter he administers or oversees.’

“100 million Pacific francs! It’s unbelievable!” says Heinui Le Caill. “In the first hearing, the prosecutor asked for a fine of 10 million, so we don’t understand how they got to 100 million. Reading the court ruling, I got the feeling that they believed Radio Tefana never did anything for the municipality, but that’s bizarre. There was absolutely no evidence of embezzlement.”

“We don’t understand why this has happened,” he added. “We feel that they are trying to muzzle us and restrict freedom of expression in our country. Radio Tefana has been a vital platform for ordinary people to express themselves and talk, for example, about the health consequences of the nuclear tests. We have the feeling that they want to close us down to suppress free speech for ordinary people.”

Le Caill believes that the fine is out of all proportion to their budget and non-profit status: “We receive a grant of 20 million CFP each year from the Faa’a municipality, which is allocated to programs and publicity related to Faa’a and the services provided by the local council. It also covers broadcast for religious and community groups, and advertising for the council about local events and services. We also get some revenue running ads from private businesses – maybe another 7 million CFP.”

Le Caill noted that before 2010, this grant was much larger, but all municipalities face budget pressures: “Other local radio stations in Pirae and Punaauia have closed, so apart from commercial stations, the only other municipal radio station is Radio Bora Bora, in the commune led by [former President] Gaston Tong Sang. It worth noting that they get an annual grant of 30 million CFP, but they haven’t been dragged before the courts like we have!”

Oscar Temaru argues that these legal woes are based on politics, not administrative justice: “There’s a real will from the French government to eliminate me from the political scene here in Tahiti and also to shut down Radio Tefana.”

A review of the case in October 2019 highlighted the fact that neither Temaru nor Le Caill had personally benefited from the alleged abuse of funds, with the judgement stating: “It is not the actual completion of a transaction that is important, but only the establishment of the material or legal link from which the accused hopes to benefit.” For Oscar Temaru “the illegal taking of an interest is constituted by the mere fact of exposing a public office to suspicion.”

Radio Tefana has launched an appeal against the court ruling and fine, although a scheduled hearing last November was postponed until 15 February. The case was deferred after defence lawyers sought a possible relocation of the trial from Papeete, alleging inappropriate meetings between prosecutor Leroy and one of the judges on the court.

“It’s worth saying that all the judges are French,” Le Caill stressed. “It reminds us that we live in a colony. They have their French way of doing things, and there are only French judges, not one Polynesian after all these years and years of colonisation. Every day in the court room, we are reminded that we live in a French colonial system. We have to change this.”

As Tefana goes before the court this month, Le Caill says the very future of free speech is at risk: “A fine of 100 million is the end of our radio station, the end of our existence, and the end of the right to free expression for the French Polynesian people. For us, that’s the crime. It’s both a political assassination and a cultural assassination. We are living through very difficult times.”

Islands Business sought comment from French judicial authorities, but had not received a response by press time.