Health Ministry's lack of access scrutinised
The Ministry of Health’s lack of public presence during the coronavirus pandemic is coming in for scrutiny, after a week of daily Government briefings that excluded journalists from private news outlets.
The press briefings were instead streamed live on social media and on the radio without submissions from journalists.
As the country enters the second week of state of emergency conditions and misinformation on the global coronavirus pandemic also known as COVID-19 spreads online, journalists are calling for more access to the M.O.H., and more answers to their questions on the national status and response.
TV1 journalist Deidre Fanene asked the Samoa Observer Editor Mata'afa Keni Lesa on Tuesday whether the release of information by the Health Ministry had been adequate in advance of a story.
Freelance reporter Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia also said he wants M.O.H. to know they cannot “spoon feed” the media without criticism.
“We are now seeing the Press Secretariat as the only channel of information for us and we don’t have any chance to ask questions, we are being spoon-fed,” he said.
“They are putting words into our mouths. Please, that is not the way we should work.”
He said he cannot rely on the Government Press Secretariat to answer his questions about the M.O.H. information they disseminate, querying the figures, emergency measures and other elements of the pandemic response.
As to whether that information received is reliable, accurate or up to date, Autagavaia said that is the “one hundred million dollar question.
“The media has the right to scrutinise whatever information we get, and [the Government] should be mindful that we do our own investigations on whatever they give us,” he said.
Throughout the COVID-19 state of emergency, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi has been delivering daily briefings through the national radio station 2AP, which is also broadcast live on Facebook on the Government of Samoa page.
Media have not been informed in advance when these occur nor invited to submit questions to be asked and answered. Questions about COVID-19 suspected cases, testing progress and testing capacity sent by email to the Ministry have not been responded to.
While media briefings have been limited in part to adhere to the state of emergency requirement that gatherings are kept to no more than five people, someone from the Government should be responding specifically to journalists’ questions, Autagavaia said, that person should be the Ministry’s Director General Leausa Dr. Take Naseri.
Until now, Leausa has not responded to local media on their COVID-19 questions but worked exclusively with the Government Press Secretariat.
Since the global pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation on March 12, and since Samoa entered a state of emergency on March 20, Leausa has not given any public media briefings nor taken questions, and broadcast one interview with the Press Secretariat over Facebook.
This shows the Government is determined to avoid public or media scrutiny on its pandemic response decisions, Autagavaia said.
“Why are they scared of the media? What are they trying to hide? They need to front up to the media, this is how democracy works,” he said.
“If we are in a state of emergency, M.O.H. which is the centre of all the information needs to open up to the media on whatever information the media is enquiring of them.”
The Journalism Association of Samoa (J.A.W.S.) President Rudy Bartley said he has asked on behalf of the industry for access to the leadership for information but has been denied.
He said the last weeks have shown a distinct change in approach by the Government on how it wants to talk to Samoa, compared with the measles epidemic emergency of 2019.
“Government has limited access to private media and has released everything through government media […], Government radio, social media and the new digital T.V. platform. This is very unusual from previous years.
“I think it’s good that they are doing this, but to make it more effective, the private media need to be there to ask the hard questions instead of prepared statements government officials often have.”
Mr. Bartley said throughout this emergency, media access to decision makers and leadership to challenge and question their decisions will be critical.
“We need the media to function properly in order to prepare our people for COVID-19. M.O.H. needs everyone including the private media to work together for the greater good of the people of Samoa to prepare and to save lives.
“I request and hope the government will consider restarting the daily press conferences so that we can all play a part in protecting Samoa from COVID-19 and preparing our people should it reach our shores.”
Two other organisations, Newsline and Samoa Global News, declined to comment.