Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi is right.
Quoted in the Sunday Samoan of 5 February 2017 as having said that “even the Samoa Observer, went and hired a very expensive lawyer from overseas” to defend itself against a government defamation claim, he is absolutely right.
Tuilaepa was apparently trying to justify the Attorney General’s decision to engage the services of an overseas prosecutor, to handle the second round of charges made against the suspended Police Commissioner, Fuiavailili Egon Keil.
The prosecutor in question, Attorney General, Lemalu Herman Retzlaff has revealed, is the New Zealand Queens Counsel, Nigel Hampaton.
Announced Tuilaepa: “We brought in the big fish from overseas. These are people whose sphere of expertise could not be found locally especially when we are faced with major issues such as the one that led to the court case against the Samoa Observer for defamation.”
He said: “Even the Samoa Observer went and hired a very expensive lawyer from overseas because with these things you just don’t take them lightly.”
Now, is that so? Why is Prime Minister Tuilaepa continuing to frown on Samoa’s own lawyers who, after all, had been well trained in overseas universities like everyone else, know well that they would one day return home and serve their country the very best way they can?
The only difference here though is that whereas the expatriate prosecutor, Nigel Hampaton’s legal fees will be paid for by the government – in other words the taxpayer – the legal fees that had been submitted by the New Zealand lawyer who’d handled the Samoa Observer’s defense in the case that Tuilaepa had referred to, had been paid for by the Samoa Observer, and no one else.
Indeed, why is he griping about the Tofilau’s defamation claim against the Samoa Observer now after all these years?
Now the questions are: How many times had the claimant incurred the displeasure of his employer? And if Tuilaepa’s memory is intact as we’re dearly hoping it still is, he should reply: Two times.
That was the number of convictions recorded in the claimant’s Police Card then, and if the truth be told, not even Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailelele Malielegaoi, can either dispute or even erase that now.
And now referring to Prosecutor Nigel Hampaton’s legal fees, Tuilaepa said: “So although it is expensive, it is money worth spending in the pursuit of justice and the truth.”
Now, is that so? Truth and justice! What colour of truth and justice is he talking about now? Red! Blue! Or black!
Because even with our eyes wide open, we still cannot see any sign of truth or justice anywhere in the Samoan government today, and instead all we’re seeing is escalating corruption spawning violence, poverty and stealing and yes, the desire not to have any desire at all.
So let’s take a brief look back on the defamation claim by the late Prime Minister Tofilau, that Tuilapea is now moaning about.
It was in January 1998.
The Samoa Observer had hired the services of a New Zealand Q.C. to defend itself against a defamation suit launched by Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana.
It followed the publication of a story in the paper that Tofilau claimed had defamed him. The story was about Tofilau’s Police Card.
Everyone who was convicted in a court of law had one. It listed the number of one’s convictions. Tofilau had a Police Card. In it was recorded his two convictions of theft before he became prime minister.
That Police Card of his was presented as evidence in court. Our defense was the truth. And so, as far as our legal team was aware, there was nothing to worry about.
And then the moment we’d been dreading arrived. Our “supportive evidence” was rejected by the court, and right away I lost interest in the trial; I did not care any more about what would happen next.
And yet I have a pretty good idea what the verdict will be. There will be no clear-cut victory. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendants will win.
They will both lose. Even His Honour will lose. His only victory is a paid-for holiday at my expense. All that I care about now is that the real losers are the people of Samoa, and the only winners here are the lawyers.
Finally on 16 September 1998, Justice Sir Gordon Bisson delivered his judgment. He denied Prime Minister Tofilau’s full claim of $WS549,441 and awarded him $75,000 instead.
On Tofilau’s claim of damages for $WS400,000, His Honour said he took into account that the plaintiff was only 12.5 percent successful, and awarded him $WS50,000.
Now that, in my book, is hogwash! Either the plaintiff is 100% successful or he is nil-successful. Is the judge saying the plaintiff is 12.5% honest and 75.5% dishonest? Preposterous. Honesty is 100%. Nothing more. Nothing less.
At that point all I wanted to do was get up and walk out of that courtroom.
Tuilaepa was Tofilau’s deputy at the time. He was the one who submitted Tofilau’s legal fees of $783,000 for Parliament’s approval.
Right away approval was granted. It was endorsed in the 1998-99 budget. Sometime later Tuilaepa requested a further $400,000 for the same purpose and once again approval was granted.
That was when the government made another significant announcement. It said from then on, top government officials from the prime minister to leaders of state ministries and corporations could use public funds to pursue defamation claims, against “newspapers.”
Interestingly enough though, the word “media” was absent in the government announcement; it was clear then that only “newspapers” were being threatened with punishment in a scheme aimed at discouraging them from disclosing alleged government corruption.
As it turned out though, only the Leader of the Opposition, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese, made his opposition known.
Attacking the move as unconstitutional, he told Parliament: “This decision breaches freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution.
“The Prime Minister does not worry about money because the government is paying.
“However, the ‘Observer’ is bound to be hurt financially whether it wins or not, since it is paying for its own legal fees. And if this is what will be happening to newspapers, their freedom to express themselves as required by the Constitution cannot be protected.”
Tuiatua continued: “The Prime Minister and other government officials will keep on suing them for defamation knowing well they do not have to part with a cent of their own.”
And he finished with a question: “Where else in the world does a government pay for the legal fees of a Prime Minister when he sues a newspaper?”