Why the British Law of Criminal Libel came to Samoa, and how it ended.

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Gatoaitele Savea Sano Malifa

It showed up on 13 August 1999, when the Samoan Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana, sued the “Samoa Observer Newspaper” claiming he had been criminally libelled by it, PINA/IFEX* reminds.

During the criminal libel action that followed, which was heard in the Supreme Court, Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana, passed away so that the trial discontinued.

The defendants were the paper’s editor, Savea Sano Malifa, and its Samoan editor, Fuimaono Fereti.

On that day, Justice Patu Tiavaasu’e Falefatu Sapolu, accepted an application by Samoa’s Attorney-General, Brenda Heather, for the proceedings to be discontinued.

The judge announced that “an application for a permanent stay” of the proceedings was before the court, and asked if there was an objection. 

In response, the second respondent, lawyer Katalaina Maka Sapolu, offered none, and thereafter the trial ended permanently.

The court ruling also effectively discontinued the hearing of an appeal scheduled for 23 August, the court ruled.

That appeal by the “Samoa Observer” questioned the ruling by another judge following his hearing of constitutional arguments on the charge. 

The judge agreed that the defendants’ constitutional rights were at the risk of being breached under criminal libel, but ruled that the hearing of the charge should proceed anyway, the newspaper said.

Now charged once again were the editor of the “Samoa Observer”, Savea Sano Malifa, and the paper’s former Samoan-language editor, Fuimaono Fereti. 

They were sued for criminal libel over the publication in Samoan of a letter from a Samoan living in New Zealand, Misatauveve Joseph Hollywood. 

They could have been jailed for up to six months if they were convicted.

In an editorial comment that followed, under the headlined, “Thank you, Samoa”, the “Samoa Observer” said: “The discontinuation of criminal libel proceedings against the Samoa Observer by the Supreme Court yesterday, was the best news this newspaper has heard for a long time.”

“News of it naturally evoked an outpouring of relief throughout the newspaper office. It came at a time when the spirit has weakened so much from so many disappointments, and now there is this precious feeling of rejuvenation, and yes hope.”

“We say thank you to Attorney-General Ms Brenda Heather, for stepping in and exercise the constitutional authority that’s vested in her office, which has now ended what has been a tiring episode which has been the cause of sleepless nights for months.”

“The criminal libel charge was filed by the late Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana, against the editor of the Samoa Observer, Savea Sano Malifa, and the paper’s Samoan editor, Fuimaono Fereti.”

“He sued over a letter sent on 6 March 1997 by a Samoan living in New Zealand, and it was later published in the Samoan language. Although the letter was severely edited with all the names appearing in it removed, the acronym PM remained. According to Fuimaono, it had honestly escaped his eye. This that was just not good enough.”

“As a result a series of court hearings started. They moved from what was then the Magistrate’s Court to the Supreme Court, and all the way up to the Court of Appeal which ordered the matter, to be returned to the Supreme Court.”

“This was when constitutional arguments were heard on whether the matter should proceed to a hearing. In his ruling, presiding judge Moran said it should. So the defendants lodged an appeal against Moran’s ruling. 

This was to be heard on 23 August 1997. However, early this year, the late PM Tofilau passed away and one of his lawyers, Katalaina Maka Sapolu, became the sole respondent.”

“This time, AG Ms Heather intervened seeking a court order to stop the proceedings, permanently. The request was granted.” 

Although the late PM had also sued the Samoa Observer for civil defamation, I am not going into that now. “Enough to say that the time has come to begin afresh in the hope that unity prevails, and not division,” Savea wrote.

“The Samoa Observer expresses its sincere appreciation to all those who might have been involved in bringing this matter to an end.” 

“We owe a lot to our lawyers Patrick Fepulea’i and Tauiliili Harry Schuster of Fepulea’i Law Office, and to our New Zealand barristers, Lyn Stevens QC, and Dr Rodney Harrison QC.”

“And now on behalf of the Samoa Observer staff, let me say thank you Samoa for your patience and understanding.”

The “Samoa Observer” is Samoa’s only daily newspaper, and its main independent news voice. In recent years, Samoa’s independent news media and journalists have faced increasing pressure after highlighting stories alleging growing corruption and abuse of public office. 

The “Samoa Observer” printing plant was burnt down under highly suspicious circumstances; the editor was assaulted by relatives of a government minister; government advertising was withdrawn from the newspaper; threats were made to impose newspaper licensing; and a law of criminal libel was introduced requiring journalists in libel actions to reveal their sources. 

The “Samoa Observer” and its staff have faced a series of criminal and civil libel cases, and injunction actions to prevent them from publishing information (see IFEX alerts).

The newspaper’s editor and publisher are previous winners of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Pacific Freedom of Information Award, Commonwealth Press Union (CPU) Astor Award and “INDEX on Censorship” press freedom award.

And today, is Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, truly serious about his dream of reviving the Criminal Libel Act, so that he can use it to track down those so-called Ole Palemia Bloggers, he’s so angry about and then punish them, but then how? 

Perhaps if they are left alone to express their opinions, and speak their minds no matter how weird they may sound, soon they’d become sick of hearing their own voices, and then they’d just keep quiet and walk away.

Now please don’t quibble.

I didn’t say a word.

Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

 

* PACIFIC ISLANDS NEWS ASSOCIATION/ INTERNATIONAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION EXCHANGE

© Samoa Observer 2016

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