Supreme Court rules on lawsuit against the Samoa Observer

Supreme Court Justice Mata Tuatagaloa has delivered her decision in the lawsuit brought by Reverend Opapo Soanai Oeti and his daughter, Toaipuapuaga Patrick, against the Samoa Observer.

The judgment dated 30th August 2019 found that “certain statement or words” in a letter to the editor published by the Samoa Observer in relation to the complainants, were “defamatory.”

The letter was an online comment, in response to a story titled “Church stigmata row deepens.”

The decision by Justice Tuatagaloa followed a hearing in March.

Rev. Opapo and Toa, who maintained she carries the marks of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion commonly referred to as the stigmata, were represented by lawyer, Muriel Lui.

During the hearing, Ms. Lui argued that the publication by the Samoa Observer of a letter to the editor, titled “Stop this madness” written by pseudonym M.R. in the Samoa Observer’s edition of 29th March 2017, was defamatory.

She also claimed that the letter was similar to what was posted on the Ole Palemia blog.

The Samoa Observer’s lawyer, Su’a Hellene Wallwork, strongly rejected the claim. She argued that the Samoa Observer could not be held accountable for the opinions of an anonymous blogger.

In her decision, Justice Tuatagaloa held that when the letter published by the Samoa Observer, is read together with the O.L.P publications, that implied something sinister.

During her submission, Su’a argued that this case is a prime opportunity for the Court, to confirm that the defence of Fair Comment on a matter of public interest, has long been one of the most important defences to a defamation action, and must be preserved to protect free speech in Samoa.

“The Defendant believes that this particular case is a precedent case for Samoa, as it directly deals with the limits and parameters of the statutory defence of Fair Comment in Samoa – in relation to publication of letters to the editor,” Su’a said in her legal submission.

In her decision, Justice Tuatagaloa disagrees.

“The defence of fair comment has not been made out,” Justice Tuatagaloa ruled.

Asked for a comment, Su’a said: “Instinctively, I think the judgment is wrong in parts. It has far reaching implications on the media's ability to publish opinions on matters of public interest, unless they are positive opinions.

“This judgment is creating a legal obligation on mainstream media to be the gatekeeper for anonymous online/social media bloggers.”

Rev. Opapo and his daughter are seeking general damages of $400,000, aggravated damages of $200,000, punitive damages of $100,000 and costs from the Samoa Observer.

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