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International Press Institute urges Samoa to repeal Criminal libel

The International Press Institute (I.P.I.), a global network of editors, publishers and leading journalists for press freedom, has called on the government of Samoa to repeal a criminal libel law it reintroduced late last year.

I.P.I. Deputy Director Scott Griffen made the call during a banquet on Friday, August 25, in Apia, Samoa, honouring the Samoa Observer newspaper, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. 

The Samoa Observer is the leading source of independent news in the South Pacific state. 

“Repealing criminal libel isn’t a cure-all for press freedom – but it is an important step,” Mr. Griffen told an audience that included Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi. 

“Journalists should never face jail for doing their jobs.”

The Samoan government had repealed criminal libel in 2013 following years of campaigning by journalists in the country, only to reintroduce it following what the government has said is growing online defamation. 

While officials have not indicated plans to use the measure against journalists, Griffen noted that the previous law had been used to target the Samoa Observer and its founder and editor-in-chief, Gatoaitele Savea Sano Malifa, whom I.P.I. named as one of its World Press Freedom Heroes in 2000. 

The Samoa Observer has been subject to harassment and intimidation throughout its history for its coverage of corruption and other forms of wrongdoing, with a low point occurring in the late 1990's when the Malifa family received death threats and the paper’s printing press was burned down under suspicious circumstances.

Friday’s event lauded Gatoaitele Savea Malifa’s commitment to independent journalism through the Samoa Observer, which he founded in 1978 shortly after returning to Samoa from the United States, where, as a young poet, he worked in a bookshop not far from the White House. 

Malifa described his time in Washington, D.C., during the Watergate scandal as formative for his future work in journalism.

“We are so proud to count Savea Sano Malifa as one of our esteemed members”, Mr. Griffen said in his remarks. “Together with his wife, Jean, Savea has worked for our over four decades with unshakeable conviction and at great personal risk to bring the news to the Samoan public and act as a fearless watchdog of those in power.”

A who’s who of politicians, journalists, business leaders and foreign diplomats gathered at the event in downtown Apia, a sign of the respect the Samoa Observer, despite its fiercely guarded independence and critical coverage of power in a country of just under 200,000 people, has cultivated over decades. Samoa’s Head of State, Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II, and the Chief Justice of the country’s supreme court were among the guests. 

Both the Head of State and the Prime Minister also praised the Observer in columns for the paper’s Friday edition.

“Here at the Samoa Observer, we will always acknowledge Samoa’s support of our work”, Malifa told the audience. “But then as journalists, we know that words can either harm of heal; indeed, it’s a tough line to follow, especially in a comparatively small society such as ours. But then, as we also all know, the truth is sacrosanct; in other words, it is holy, which follows that it must be told no matter what, and never mind the consequences.”

Malifa attributed the paper’s success to the trust it enjoyed with readers.

“The truth is that, it is because of your loyal and relentless support of the Samoa Observer over the years that we are still here today”, he said.

Griffen also praised the paper’s dedication to press freedom near and abroad, highlighting that the Observer regularly dedicated valuable space to press freedom developments around the globe.

“On behalf of I.P.I., I would like to congratulate the Samoa Observer on its 40th anniversary and thank Savea Malifa and his team for their unwavering support for press freedom and quality journalism in Samoa, in the South Pacific and around the globe”, he said.

He added: “We look forward to many more years of this newspaper’s strong, independent voice.”

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