Journalist says Tuilaepa 'evasive' after heated exchange

A British journalist who clashed with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi during a heated press conference has accused him of avoiding tough questions and acknowledging the Government’s responsibility for the impact of the measles epidemic. 

On Thursday morning, London Daily Telegraph correspondent, Brian Deer, put it to the Prime Minister he was “blaming other people for this epidemic”. 

His questions evoked an angry response from Tuilaepa: “We are not blaming, and we were educating them,” he said 

“Understanding the problem is a big thing you do not know because you are not a Samoan."

Deer was almost cut off by the Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Afamasaga Rico Tupai, before Tuilaepa allowed him to continue asking questions. But the Prime Minister told Deer he should be focused on the problem of Britain’s forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union (“Brexit”) not criticising Samoa.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Deer said that he had questions to ask the Prime Minister but he did not want to answer them.

“What I got was a barrage of avoidance. He wanted to talk about Brexit,” he said. 

“What many people we have spoken to in the community feel is a failure of his administration to protect his own people. If I had gotten a chance I would have asked him if he felt that he should apologise for the slowness with which the administration responded to this crisis.”

He also added that Samoan Government must have known the epidemic was coming.

“It must have known the situation in New Zealand. [Prime Minister] He must have known the position in South Auckland the constant traffic back and forth into this community, the low vaccination rates his administration which he is responsible must have known these things,” he said. 

“I think he should have answered my questions and not have someone stand in front of me [Afamasaga] and say: ‘You may not ask any more questions’.

“[Tuilaepa] He could have said: ‘We could have done better we are now doing everything we can’. 

“I asked why was he blaming his own people, why would you be in a press conference start talking about someone who put out a red flag [despite the fact] they lived to the hospital.”

Deer said the implication of Tuilaepa’s use of the family across the road from the hospital as an example of Samoans being reluctant to vaccinate was equivalent to saying “pretty stupid people” were responsible for the outbreak. 

“Getting the message out about vaccines - and I don’t promote vaccines - today I am not campaigning for anything; I am just asking the questions - is public education and clearly there has been a failure of that here,” he said. 

“Or the vaccination [rate] would not have fallen to what they were so maybe the Government here should talk to its neighbours New Zealand and Australia both has extensive public health services who I’m sure would be willing to come and talk to him about the best ways of protecting people against mass vaccination diseases.”

Deer agreed that he may have appeared in Samoan terms somewhat forthright in his style of questioning but he is from Britain and that’s the way journalists there ask questions: “Otherwise you don’t get any answers.”

“I asked a very straight forward question. If he gave a straight forward answer I needn’t have said anything else but he didn’t and he wasn’t going to.

“I don’t know whether Samoan culture has a large element of avoidance of conflict or avoidance of accepting personal blame you can only deal with it as it has.

“I have asked my questions and I got a response from the Prime Minister and my experiences as a journalist you don’t ask the same question because what you’re doing is giving the other side an opportunity to change their answer and you end up not knowing what their answer is.”

Deer has been a journalist for 30 years and, in the mid 2000s, while working for the Sunday Times, famously uncovered a story falsely linking the measles vaccine with autism that forced the world’s most prestigious medical journal, “The Lancet”, to retract an article making the link. 

When Afamasaga was asked about why he stopped the Bristish reporter from asking further questions, he said that the journalist was being rude.

“He was not the only journalist on site, what he did was not only [disrespectful] to the Prime Minister but he was also disrespectful to the whole media group that was here,” he said.

“In Samoa we have a culture where we respect our leaders, local media when dealing with the Prime Minister will always get your answers because you ask in a respectful manner.

“You don’t have to be ruthless and aggressive to get your answers. He was not only rude to our leader but also taking up the time of everyone else who had questions.”

When asked about a remark made to the media about "respecting the laws of the land" during the press conference, he said the implication was not about legislation: “We have a culture.

“In the Pacific every island or country has a culture that everybody adheres to, so we need to follow that. He is not in London and while he is here he needs to behave accordingly.

“Respectfully ask your question that was the message I was trying to put across. We are in the Pacific ask your questions in the Pacific way, you are not in the U.K.”

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