Samoa’s press freedom ranking, and the digital highway

Yes, its that time of the year again, when the World Press Freedom Index annual rankings by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders are released.

Around the world, citizens are either praising or shaming their governments and public office holders, over how they as individuals are allowed to exercise their freedom using all that the Fourth Estate has to offer as well as enjoying other rights such as the freedom of expression. 

Interestingly, Samoa has not dropped back to 23 or moved forward to 21 – the country has maintained its 22nd placing from the 2018 index. And depending on which chair you are sitting on this morning, while reading this editorial, it could be “good” or “bad”. 

Does Samoa deserve a pat on the back for consistency in maintaining its 22nd placing? Yes. The good news is the country didn’t fall back to 23 and further afield. But is it good for the country to remain static, without making progress in our bid to cement our standing as a regional model of press freedom? No. There is a lot of work to do, if there is to be any traction to progress on the index.

Reporters Without Borders didn’t mince its words, when it identified the Samoa Government’s Criminal Libel law, as the country’s biggest obstacle to ultimate press freedom.

"A law criminalizing defamation was repealed in 2013, raising hopes that were dashed in December 2017 when Parliament restored the law under pressure from Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, giving him license to attack journalists who dared to criticize members of his Government. 

"A few months later, in early 2018, the Prime Minister warned Samoan media outlets not to “play with fire” by being too critical in their reporting or else his government would censor their websites,” the assessment by the Paris-based press freedom watchdog stated. 

And the Journalist Association of (Western) Samoa (JAWS) president, Rudy Bartley, echoed similar sentiments last night when contacted for comment by the Samoa Observer.

"This law is a form of media censorship and is a hindrance to freedom of information. Freedom of information is essential in any democracy and the Criminal Libel Law is a threat to the work of the media and people's freedom of expression. 

"In addition, the fall of ranking may also be linked to other recent issues impacting on media freedom in Samoa. “Examples: difficulty of media accessing up-to-date information from government officials, detaining of journalists by police while doing their jobs, and unfair restrictions of local private media in coverage of official government events (official visits and international conferences hosted by Government)," he said.

And if our friends in the Samoa Government don’t know, then perhaps this the best time to say it: there is nothing wrong with setting the bar high in Samoa, in terms of press freedom.

In fact, we all strive to deliver services to the same constituency – the people of Samoa. Our parliamentary leaders are mandated through universal suffrage, to deliver goods and services to the people, and create laws to improve the lives of our people. The media is mandated with the responsibility to inform, educate and empower citizens with information on the performance of the Government-of-the-day and to alert leaders in the Parliament to shortcomings in the Government’s development agenda, in the hope that the issues will be identified and resolved for the betterment of the people. At the end of the day, we should be partners and our roles – while different in foundation and history – should be complimentary. 

Therefore, there is nothing wrong with dreaming of improving Samoa’s ranking towards the 20th placing. But first things first: Criminal Libel Law should be abolished. And grievance mechanisms through Samoa’s Courts, which include mediation, should be promoted.

We take our hats off again to Norway, for coming tops in the 2019 Index for the third year running, while acknowledging the efforts of Finland (up two places) which has taken second place from the Netherlands (down one at 4th), where two reporters who cover organized crime have had to live under permanent police protection. 

We note an increase in cyber-harassment to have caused Sweden (third) to lose one place. But are mindful of the long-term benefits of a Samoa Government-supported internet security training run by America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Last year a Samoa Government delegation visited Silicon Valley in the U.S. and met with technology companies and public officials as a first step towards making Samoa a regional innovation hub. The visit was part of a project that the Minister of Communications and Information, Afamasaga Rico Tupai, led. The project was called Innovation Economy for a Digital Samoa”. 

The Samoa media industry can become the vehicle that the Government can use to drive its digital innovation agenda. But before that can happen, we should work together to fix up the potholes on that digital highway.

Have a lovely Tuesday Samoa and God bless.

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