Some might have been wondering why the Samoa Observer was not represented at the Media Council Meeting last week, where members of the council were appointed, and their photograph was subsequently published in this paper’s edition yesterday.
Let me tell you why.
Back in August 2003 when the Samoa Observer celebrated its 25th anniversary, Samoa’s relatively new Prime Minister at the time, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, made the suggestion that perhaps the press should consider introducing a code of practice to regulate itself.
That suggestion of his, as it turned out, caused some concern since at the time, a press code was already in place, it had been adapted by the Journalists Association of Western Samoa (J.A.W.S.) from a U.S. model some years previously, and at that point it was operational right here in Samoa.
Still, down the line J.A.W.S.’ executive decided it was time to have its own code of ethics with a self-regulatory Media Council “to adjudicate upon alleged breaches of it”, which was when a request to The Thomson Foundation of the U.K. for assistance, was made.
Later, with support from the Commonwealth Media Development Fund, and in partnership with The Thomson Foundation, the media expert named Ian Beales, was sent over to help get the job done.
His was a two-part assignment.
First, he was to establish whether there was support for such a Code of Ethics, and if there was, what form should it take if it were to command the full support of the industry, as well as the respect of the public.
The understanding was that when he returned home, he would draft a Code to reflect Samoa’s needs and aspirations, which would then be sent to all interested parties for consultation, and if the final Code was “broadly acceptable to the industry”, it would then be adopted and introduced.
Second, if there was general agreement on the Code he was proposing, he would return to Samoa to investigate if there would be enough support for a self-regulatory Media Council, find out whether it was desirable, practical, workable and what form it would take, and finally what possible funding would be needed.
Mr Beales spent 13 days in Samoa.
Later, when he was back in the U.K., he wrote: “I am extremely grateful for the time, patience and unfailing courtesy, wisdom and hospitality, which I received throughout my stay, and I offer my warmest thanks to all those who contributed to it.”
Still, there were “some difficulties” along the way, he wrote, especially in “funding” and so forth, and yet ”with goodwill they can usual be overcome.”
He then explained that “the removal of such stumbling blocks would form a major part of the second stage of this project”, and he then revealed “one of the stumbling blocks” he was talking about was.
He wrote: “One very senior media figure questioned the political wisdom of the media pursuing self-regulation to such lengths while at the same time, seriously anti-media legislation are still in place.”
He also wrote: “Such anti-media legislation are Criminal Defamation and The Publishers and Printers Acts.”
“They remain on the Statute book as a major threat to media freedom in general, and investigative journalism in particular.”
He then pointed out: “This is a very real concern and it will need to be addressed.”
And so, Criminal Defamation and the Publishers and Printers Acts, what are they?
Briefly, they were described then as archaic laws that some governments had used in the distant past to punish hardened criminals, and yet here in Samoa at the time, they were being used by our government leaders to punish unsuspecting journalists.
Incidentally, the law of Criminal Libel which carried the jail term of six months, was used at that time by Samoa’s prime minister in an attempt to punish the editor of the Samoa Observer by putting him in jail.
The prime minister was apparently angry with the editor for allowing a story that he claimed had tarnished his reputation, to be published in the paper.
And yet, as far as the editor was aware, his job was to tell the truth, and nothing but the battered, naked truth. That was all he cared about, he said.
Luckily for him though, the Attorney General at the time, Brenda Heather, submitted to the court for the matter be discontinued, and in response, His Honour, Chief Justice, Patu Falefatu Sapolu, accepted.
Subsequently the claim was withdrawn.
Said the story on the trial that was published in the paper the next day: “In his ruling, His Honour agreed that the defendant’s constitutional rights were at the risk of being breached under criminal libel, but then he ruled that the hearing of the charge should proceed anyway.”
“The defendants 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 convicted.”
In an accompanying editorial comment headlined “Thank you, Samoa”, the editor wrote: “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.”
It also said: “Thank you Samoa for your support.”
Still, that was then.
Today, the questions that are still aching for some answers are:
What has become of the anti-media laws called the Criminal Defamation Bill and Publishers and Printers Act?
Indeed, has the government repealed those sinister laws as it’d said it would?
We have no idea.
All we know is that when the former Attorney General, Aumua Ming Leaug Wai, was asked for a comment while he was still in office, he told the Samoa Observer the government was indeed in the process of repealing the laws in question.
We have not heard about what’s become of them since.
And so, perhaps that’s something for the newly-appointed National Media Association of Samoa – or is it J.A.W.S.* whatever that silly acronym stands for - to find out.
And lastly, don’t you think those who are accused of fraud and embezzlement should not be allowed to have anything to do within the governing board, of the National Media Association of Samoa?
It’s just a thought anyway.
Have a peaceful Samoa, God bless.
*J.A.W.S. stands for Journalists of Western Samoa.