No apology from cartoonist over insensitive Samoa measles joke

Samoa will not see an apology from the cartoonist responsible for the joke about measles in Tuesday’s Otago Daily Times, despite Samoan media organisations demanding he do so.

Garrick Tremain told Radio New Zealand’s First Up programme on Wednesday morning he thought his joke was “innocuous” and won’t be apologising for it.

The cartoon led to immediate online fury from across the Pacific, including from leading media figures decrying the joke which made fun of the measles rash.

Measles has claimed at least 55 lives thus far and infected nearly 4000 people since it broke out at the end of August.

Speaking of First Up, Mr. Tremain said he did not realise how much coverage the measles epidemic was getting and if he had, would not have presented the cartoon.

“I can quite understand why it has upset people. It's a very poor piece of timing for such a cartoon - I'm the first to agree with that.

“If you've read the cartoon, the basis is a travel agent taking the wrong end of the stick and making a stupid comment.”

The Journalism Association of Samoa said the disregard for suffering by the cartoon was “overwhelming.

“The insensitivity and careless disregard for human suffering in the papers cartoon is overwhelming. 

“Where are your journalist morals, ethics and professional integrity?”

On Tuesday, the Otago Daily times published not one but two apologies, saying the “content and the timing were insensitive.”

“We have published many stories about the human suffering caused by the outbreak. They are stories not about a virus, they are stories of real people, real hurt, and real tragedy.

This should have been our starting point when considering publishing the cartoon. That it was not was a deeply regrettable error in judgement,” the apology reads.

Editor Barry Stewart said the cartoon selection process will be reviewed to become more “robust.”

The Samoa Association of Media Practitioners for Development condemned the cartoon and the apology, saying it “trivialised” the epidemic and affected local trust in media.

“Samoan journalists have tirelessly covered the measles epidemic in a sensitive, professional and respectful manner and this type of coverage is a direct threat to the effective and responsible dissemination of information about the epidemic through the news media. 

“Further, we do not accept the "apology" issued by O.D.T. as a genuine gesture given the wording, brevity, reasoning and lack of remorse in the text of the apology. 

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, a media specialist and member of SAMPOD said the cartoon failed to observe the “basic etiquettes of journalist and human empathy.”

“During a time when the public need a responsible news media, any misreporting, frivolous or trivial coverage of the epidemic is not only disrespectful but unprofessional. 

“O.D.T.s cartoon shows once again the exceptionalism nature of some developed country media, it shows to me that the plights of islanders are not as serious to them because, well we are just islanders and deaths here may not be perceived in the same manner of seriousness as deaths in New Zealand.”

But Tremain, while acknowledging the timing was off, is not backing down on the cartoon itself, and has “ruled out” apologising to Samoa publically.

“Obviously, I would have thought that was self-evident, if I had thought it wasn't advisable or satisfactory I wouldn't have done it. I thought it was an innocuous joke.

“I see nothing wrong with the cartoon. It's not causing any more deaths, it's not laughing about deaths, it's laughing about a stupid misunderstanding by a travel agent speaking to somebody.”

He said he has apologised personally to anyone who has spoken to him, and blamed a “politically correct atmosphere that we’re being suffocated by” for the massive reaction to the cartoon.

“In this politically correct atmosphere that we're being suffocated by you have to be aware that there is a growing number of people who wake up in the morning and their first intention is to find something to be offended about, so that's something that we didn't have to deal with in the past to the extent that we do now.”

But Lagiopoiva believes the entire cartoon should be retracted.

“He (Mr. Tremain) obviously thinks the lives of our people are not important enough to be respected in such a tragic time. 

“The fact he did not know how serious the repercussions are means he is detached from the issues facing communities who are closely related to the audiences he serves. The approach is simply racist and irresponsible. 

Additional reporting by Yumi Epati-Talaave

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