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When a Government story spins out of control

We appear to have gone through the looking glass.

The role of a Government’s Press Secretary is traditionally to serve as the preeminent source of information about Government affairs. And, within the limits of decency and factuality, usually to dispense it in such a way that casts the Government in the most favourable light possible. 

These professionals aren’t for nothing as “spin doctors”.

But the handling of a story by the Press Secretary for the Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Nanai Laveitiga Tuiletufuga, appears to have spun out of control this week. 

First a reconstruction of the events that led us here.

Samoa Observer reporter Soli Wilson, calling Nanai in relation to a separate story entirely, was asked if she would be interested in another ‘tip’.

It was quite a story indeed. 

The Minister, for Commerce Enterprise and Labour, Lautafi Fio Purcell, Nanai said, had been denied entry onto Samoan soil on the same day that eight other Samoans were and had been sent to Fiji for quarantine. 

"That’s how important and paramount the health precautions are at our border of security,” Nanai told our reporter.

"He got turned back just like everybody else. That’s how strict the policy is."

As the coronavirus spreads around the world at warp speed and after last year’s deadly epidemic in which questions were raised about whether due precautions were taken, this was a Government leaving nothing to chance. 

"Even our own people we are not giving them exemptions. Our [Cabinet] Minister was also denied entry and sent back to Fiji,” he said.

But this is a story that gets curiouser and curiouser. 

Lautafi, for his part, flatly denied ever being denied entry to Samoa, when called by Wilson on Saturday while he was at the golf course. 

The Samoa Observer included the Minister’s denial in the story alongside the Press Secretary’s comment.

The following day Lautafi added more detail to his denial. 

He had been travelling to Fiji for a Trade Ministers’ Forum that week in Suva. Indeed, the Samoa Observer was able to find photos online of him attending the event. 

Lautafi said he had been on the same flight as the eight Samoans denied entry into the country for reasons of quarantine and even conversed with one of them, but he was not denied entry with them “together” as our reporter had been told.

It was suggested in a story carried on the front page of Tuesday’s edition (“Minister rejects Govt.’s deportation claim”) by the C.E.O. of the Prime Minister’s department that this newspaper “deliberately omit[ed] statements and responses” in its original reporting of this story. 

This newspaper omits nothing.

We have consistently shown as much by giving over the most prominent space in our pages to critics of our reporting. The critical comments we ran in our front page story on Tuesday are a prime example.

This is a practice we proudly carry out; it reflects our belief in the truth; it reflects our belief in a duty to present our readers all the facts; and our belief in their ability to draw their own conclusions. 

In an attempt to shift blame for this story onto this newspaper the Government has tried to gloss over its own role in this fiasco. But it is simply too glaring to ignore. 

As a further demonstration of our belief in transparency we are reproducing, in full, the recorded conversation between Nanai and Ms. Wilson on today’s front page. 

We have asked and are yet to receive an explanation to how apparently false information was passed on by the Government’s Press Secretary. 

In the absence of an answer, we might be tempted to speculate that the most senior official responsible for communicating to the Samoan public has not paid due care to checking the information he disseminates. Or perhaps he has become a conduit for disinformation. 

We’d like to tell you. But reliable information in Samoa is in short supply this week. 

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