An interesting exchange has broken out between Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielelgaoi and his Tongan counterpart, Akilisi Pohiva.
It has led to Prime Minister Tuilaepa accusing Mr. Pohiva of being jealous of Samoa.
Tuilaepa made the comment in response to Mr. Pohiva questioning Samoa’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index.
Samoa is ranked 22nd while Tonga is ranked 51st.
Speaking at the opening of the 5th Pacific Media Summit being held in Nukualofa, Tonga, Mr. Pohiva suggested that something was odd with the rankings.
“You have all heard by now how that Tonga dropped two places from 49 to 51 on the 2018 World Press Freedom index,” he said.
“You have also learned that the reason for the drop is because of my government’s unfair treatment of senior journalists in the Tonga Broadcasting Commission."
“I have no problems with that but let me assure you all that it is a work in progress."
“We are continuing to talk with the management and staff members of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission about improving our relationship and of course our position in the 2019 Press Freedom Index.”
This is when he turned his attention to Samoa.
“I must say that I am surprised by Samoa’s position on the Press Freedom Index where Samoa is 22nd," he said.
“Oh congratulations! However what I went on about is the ongoing battle between my Samoan counterpart and the Samoa Observer. I can’t believe that Samoa is 22nd and Tonga is 51st. This is unbelievable.”
Asked for a comment yesterday, Prime Minister Tuilaepa laughed.
“Our ranking is far superior than the United States of America, which is ranked 45th and this is good news for the Media and everyone who is here in my office,” Tuilaepa said.
“I am thankful that the Government puts up with you people,” he said, laughing.
“I am talking about freedom of journalists in our country and that is why the Tongan Prime Minister is somewhat “jello” (jealous) given that their ranking is very low, yet Samoa’s ranking is quite significant.”
According to Prime Minister Tuilaepa, there is a difference in the governance of Samoa and Tonga.
“At times, reporters want a comment at odd hours which is not an issue for me,” he said. “But if that was in Tonga, you’ll be cast far out."
“But for our Samoa media, I start seeing you people from Monday until today (Thursday)."
“And I always respond to your questions and you will find that I am hardly upset with the media.”
There is a reason for this, he said.
“If I am being interviewed while I’m upset, it wouldn’t be a productive interview,” said Tuilaepa.
He also commented that others have taken their freedom of expression on Facebook.
“I dare them to go and print their views on the newspaper and they’ll be taken to Court but to hide behind secret identities is cowardly. We all know who they are, including a former Member of Parliament who was on the opposition side.”
He did not name anyone.
According to R.S.F’s report, Tonga’s independent media outlets have increasingly assumed a watchdog role since the first democratic elections in 2010.
“However, some political leaders have not hesitated to sue media outlets, exposing them to the risk of heavy damages awards.
“Some journalists say they are forced to censor themselves because of the threat of being bankrupted.
“In an effort to regulate ‘harmful’ online content, especially on social networks, the Government adopted new laws in 2015, one of which provides for the creation of an internet regulatory agency with the power to block websites without reference to a judge.
“The reelection of Prime Minister Samuela Akilisi Pōhiva’s party in November 2017 was accompanied by growing tension between the Government and journalists, especially in public broadcasting, where two senior editors were sidelined under pressure from the Government,” says R.S.F.
Pertaining to Samoa ranked 22 on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, the report points to the liveliness of media outlets in Samoa, crediting the work of the Samoa Observer Group and Talamua Media among others.
According to R.S.F’s report on Samoa, “the law criminalising defamation was repealed in 2013 raising hopes that were finally dashed in December 2017, when Parliament restored the law under pressure from Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi.
“The grounds he gave were a supposed need to penalise so called ‘ghost writers’ by which he above all meant those who dared to criticize members of his Government.”
The R.S.F. report also points out the Samoa Media Council law adopted in 2015 was welcomed inter alia because it led to the adoption of a code of ethics in February 2017.