The pitfalls of prosecuting whistleblowers in a democracy

You have to wonder whether all is well in Samoa when you hear of moves by the Government to bring in stiff penalties targeting civil servants who leak information to a “third party”.

Samoa Observer broke the story on proposed amendments to the Crimes Act in the Friday edition, which if passed by the Parliament, would make it illegal for civil servants to disclose “any official information to any third party for any reason.'' Government employees found to have breached the proposed law could be slapped with a $3,000 tala fine and seven years imprisonment.

It is a worrying development for a nation, which prides itself as a model state in the Pacific islands, in terms of good governance, positive economic growth and human development indicators. The proposed amendments are aimed at whistle blowers in Samoa’s public service. 

This year Samoa was ranked 22 on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries and territories. In September last year, Samoa was included with Fiji, Palau and Tonga in the high development category of the Human Development Index (HDI) by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And multilateral financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have expressed confidence in the Samoan economy, projecting growth to “accelerate” this year on the back of growth in the tourism sector and Samoa’s hosting of the 2019 XVI Pacific Games in July this year. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi was quick to acknowledge the role of the media in Samoa’s development during World Press Freedom Day celebrations in May this year. 

“Journalists in Samoa have the freedom to do their job and you should be jumping for joy and sing hallelujah that the Samoa Government understands the role of the media," he said during his weekly press conference. 

“You have the freedom to conduct your duties and write your article, which I find that sometimes are stupid."

While we appreciate the commendation by the Prime Minister of the role of the media in Samoa, we note too the irony in his comments close to four months later, following revelations of his Government’s moves to introduce legislation to stop leakages of official information by civil servants. We have no doubt the “third party” reference in the proposed amendments points to the media and is an attempt to stop whistle blowers reaching out to the media.

But why should the Government be so secretive about its deliberations and policies which should at the end of the day benefit all citizens? Are there matters that the Government doesn't want revealed? Shouldn't citizens be privy to official government information which would ultimately impact their lives? And shouldn't openness and transparency within the Government be pillars of Samoa’s democracy? 

Every time governments around the world announced plans to legislate to penalise the leaking of official government information it raises red flags. It compels the public to ask more questions of their government’s actions and creates suspicion, distrust and a lack of confidence in their leaders. 

Veteran journalist Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia, who is is Radio New Zealand’s Samoa correspondent and the country representative to the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS), cautioned the Government on the proposed amendments and went a step further to suggest the drafting of a Freedom of Information bill. 

“The Government should [already] have a Freedom of Information Act to ensure that the public and the media has access to government information,” said Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia.

"Yet the government [instead] moves to criminalise the leaking of government information. 

“The government should be mindful of the public’s interest on certain government issues and unless information is leaked out the media cannot report on it.”

Now that Mr Prime Minister is a step in the right direction – cease work on the proposed amendments to the Crimes Act forthwith – and start work on formulating the draft freedom of information act. Samoa is in urgent need of freedom of information legislation.

The media in Samoa need help accessing official government information, for the benefit of its readers, viewers and listeners. And we can be privy to that information courtesy of freedom of information legislation. Any freedom of information legislation does not work against the people – it always works for the people, gives them access to official documentation and ultimately enables them to have trust and confidence in the decisions of their leaders and the Government. 

At the end of the day, it is the citizens – whom both the Government and the media swore an oath to serve in their different roles – who are the winners. 

Have a lovely Sunday Samoa and God bless.

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