P.M. defends draft law to criminalise leaks, takes aim at Samoa Observer

Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, has denied that a proposed law, which threatens to jail Government officials for up to seven years for leaking information, is a backward step for democracy in Samoa.

Speaking to the media yesterday, the Prime Minister said the draft proposal was made necessary by journalists writing negative stories with the intention of boosting newspaper sales.

 “Their intention is not to report the truth,” Tuilaepa said. “These journalists will twist the information and they will benefit from it financially and yet their stories are based on lies.”

"So the purpose of these laws is to protect the country."

The Prime Minister did not name any journalist, nor did he single out any newspaper, during his media conference on Thursday.

But speaking on his weekly programme with the Talamua Media on Wednesday, the Prime Minister took aim at the Samoa Observer.

He accused the newspaper of publishing stories with negative consequences for the Government and the nation.

The Prime Minister cited the example of a report in the newspaper last month about Samoa Airways' jet operations incurring a $6.6 million loss between October to December, last year.

That report was based on figures in a financial performance report submitted by Samoa Airways and to the Ministry of Public Enterprises, which was available for download from the Government's website. It was taken down shortly after the story's publication.

 “They are in the middle of putting together their finances, yet they published the losses of the airline and it has a negative impact on the market," Tuilaepa said.

"Their notion is that they have the right to publish these figures and they forget the impact it has on the airline.

 “These are the type of issues that we don’t really tell anyone about it, but the Samoa Observer are the ones slandering the efforts of the airline and jeopardising the Government’s proposals.”

He said the stories are especially damaging when it comes to “sensitive matters.”

The Prime Minister also criticised the Samoa Observer for publishing reports about sensitive policy proposals before they have been approved by Cabinet.

He noted that the draft Crimes Act amendment criminalising the release of public information was carried in a report the Samoa Observer last week.

 “This is exactly what I mean," he said.  “We haven’t finalised the plans and yet they have announced it. The end result is that information is leaked and it is not good for the government when they are in the proposing stages yet it is already been publicised."

Tuilaepa also cited the example of a Samoa Observer story about a proposed wharf in Vaiusu. 

The Samoa Observer reported in June 2019 the proposed wharf in Vaiusu will cost around $250 million tala and will be funded by the Chinese Government.

That figure was confirmed by the Prime Minister himself during his weekly media programme at the time.

The Prime Minister said the Samoa Observer’s reporting had also undermined the Samoa Rugby Union (S.R.U.), of which he serves as Chairman.

 “There were many times World Rugby finds out about certain decisions from them [Samoa Observer] instead of the S.R.U.," said Tuilaepa.

 “It is quite unpleasant that they have not been informed officially when they [Samoa Observer] have already reported on the decisions; and the World Rugby complains about it and it makes the negotiations difficult, yet these are sensitive matters."

He said the nature of newspapers to publish such stories “causes hatred amongst the [world of] rugby union".

The Prime Minister was adamant that transparency was alive and well in his administration.

He said that any suspected irregularities should be reported directly to Parliament or the Government and that senior officials, Ministers and the Prime Minister could be held accountable by questions from journalists.

"I am the one responding to questions when it comes to issues pertaining to the Samoa Government, when the media inquiries, I respond,” he said.

The Government's 2014 Finance Management legislation says whistle blowers can report suspected irregularities or wrongdoing to the Audit Office and be afforded protection.

 “After the investigation, the Audit Office will then write to the C.E.O. outlining the issues and recommendations on what needs to be done," he said.

Tuilaepa said Samoa is following the footsteps of the government of New Zealand and Australia on this specific issue. The Audit protections cover government employees who report information within government and not those who expose alleged or suspected wrongdoing publicly, or via the media.

The draft amendment to the Crimes Act would make it illegal for public servants to disclose “any official information to any third party for any reason”.

Any government employees breaching the provisions would be liable to a term of imprisonment not exceeding seven years, a fine of up to $3000 tala, or both.

Late last year the Public Sector Commission (P.S.C.) urged the Government to develop whistle blower protection legislation.

To date the Attorney General, Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff, has not responded to e-mails about the draft amendment.

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