Media ban a blow to transparency

The recent exclusion of the media from pre-Parliament briefing sessions is inexplicable but also a backwards step for Government accountability. 

On Monday reporters from the Samoa Observer and a TV station were both denied access to a pre-Parliament session.

The sessions are held on the eve of parliamentary sitting weeks with the intent of allowing Members of Parliament to scrutinise bills forthcoming before the Legislative Assembly by asking questions of heads of Ministries.  

Denying the fourth estate the right to cover what have become an increasingly important part of the broader Parliamentary process is a regrettable step away from transparency. 

But more obviously the decision is simply inconsistent. 

Since their introduction reporters have always been allowed to cover pre-parliamentary briefing sessions. 

What, we must ask, is different about this year? 

On Tuesday the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly,  Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei,  admitted there was no policy guiding the media’s rights to cover such processes but said the Speaker of the House had cited “parliamentary privilege” when conveying the order.

He further argued reporters would continue to be allowed to cover the most significant part of the parliamentary process: debate in the chamber.

“Media will have their chance to report on the bills deliberations when the ‘Legislative Process’ commences,” he said, in an e-mail.

The Clerk might be right about that. But his justification for the ban skips over two important points. 

Every time a previously open process is replaced by one that takes place behind closed doors good governance suffers. And the pre-Parliament sessions are increasingly influencing parliamentary debate making them a newsworthy and necessary part of political journalism. 

When Tiatia himself characterised the pre-Parliament sessions as being a forum that gave M.P.s an opportunity to formulate their views on policy he was unwittingly making an argument for why they deserved coverage. 

Were all the issues canvassed in pre-Parliament sessions repeated on the floor of Parliament the Clerk’s justification for excluding reporters might carry more weight.

But the briefings, and the topics discussed within them, are increasingly being used as a justification to truncate debate on the floor of the Parliament. 

We have seen M.P.s denied the opportunity to raise questions about bills on the basis that the answers have already been provided in the relevant pre-Parliament session. 

M.P.s. are told they are “wasting” the Legislative Assembly’s time.

That asking questions of Government representatives in an open forum could be described as a misuse of Parliament’s time strains our credulity. 

But if the answers to questions raised publicly have already been given behind closed doors, does that not rob the democratically vital process of asking questions of its purpose?

Opposition M.P. Olo Fiti Vaai was quite correct when he noted the purpose of asking questions from the floor of Parliament is to make the activities of Government public and to keep voters informed about the democratic process.

Pre-parliamentary sessions reveal the important details of proposed changes to the laws of the land. The briefings allow the often opaque language of legislation to be translated into understandable language; debate about the potentially unforeseen implications of new laws; and for bills’ shortcomings to be tested and criticised. 

But M.P.s. note the sessions are also increasingly becoming a venue for them to voice constituents’ concerns about particular pieces of legislation and raise issues on behalf of the voters they represent. 

These discussions may not be taking place in the chamber of Parliament. But they bear all the hallmarks of democratic deliberation by elected representatives and therefore deserve to be covered by the media and made available to the public.  

Running forums allowing elected representatives to debate and deliberate outside the floor of Parliament is an established feature of most democracies. Location should mean nothing about whether these forums should be considered democratically important or part of the broader parliamentary process. 

In long established democracies from the United States' tradition of congressional hearings or parliamentary inquiries in Australia, parliamentarians often engage in such question and answer sessions with bureaucrats. 

But absent exemptions for reasons of national security these processes are conducted publicly; they are seen as one part of Parliament's broader democratic function and a complement to official parliamentary debate.

Why should Samoa take such a narrow definition of which parts of democracy and activities in Parliament merit coverage by the media? We are yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

Ironically, the introduction of pre-Parliament sessions was intended to bolster public knowledge of issues before Parliament. 

The Samoa Parliamentary Support Project, a United Nations initiative funded by the Australian Government, was intended as a way for legislators to gain a command of the finer details of bills before debate began so they could focus on the big issues. 

But looking back on these reforms in light of Monday’s media ban shows that these reforms have drifted from their intended purpose. 

One of the project’s main goals was “boosting the overall engagement of the public with the Parliament.” 

It is hard to see how banning the media from this new arena for scrutinising Government does anything but achieve the opposite. 

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