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When it comes to press freedom in Samoa, things could be better

On this Sunday, World Press Freedom Day, Samoa has been given a reason to celebrate. 

Released late last month, this year’s World Press Freedom Index had Samoa rise one place to rank as the 21st “freest” country in the world insofar as restrictions on reporting are concerned. 

Samoa is even said to have elbowed countries with a reputation for a free press, such as Australia - which fell five places - out of the way.

Is this cause for celebration, or an unaccountably rosy picture of the health of the value of a free media in this country?  We believe it is a little of both.

Samoa stands head and shoulders above its Pacific counterparts, which labour under stringent media controls. 

Since 1978, this newspaper has been uncompromising in its insistence upon reporting the truth and creating a culture of a free press. That is the case even when our jobs clash with Samoan cultural values of respect for authority figures, keeping the peace and condemning those who do not as faikakala (gossips). 

The ability to report on anything and say anything in the opinion pages of this newspaper is in stark contrast to our neighbours such as Fiji, where media freedom had become so bad that soldiers were present in newsrooms approving articles before they were made public. 

Such censorship has lessened but journalists continue to operate under the fear of falling foul of the Government’s media decree of 2010 which threatens journalists with jail terms or fines for saying the wrong things. 

Fiji, too, and the Pacific’s other major media market, Papua New Guinea, have been infected by an insidious trend of once proud newspapers cheerfully reprinting Government propaganda.

That Samoa has not fallen prey to either influence and that we are free to express ourselves as we wish in the pages of this newspaper is a cause enough for celebration on World Press Freedom day.

But last year on this day, the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, said of media freedom in this country: “Journalists in Samoa have the freedom to do their job and you should be jumping for joy and sing hallelujah that the Samoa Government understands the role of the media”.

Here we respectfully part ways with the Prime Minister but also Reporters Without Borders, which compiles these annual rankings. Press freedom is a nuanced concept and one that can be measured in several ways; but the absence of repressive legislation is only one aspect

Another is the transparent operation of Government and its accessibility to the press. On this score, Samoa scores very poorly.

Australia’s fell by five places this year in the media rankings; its decline was precipitated by a raid by that country’s federal Police on a journalist’s home and the offices of a public broadcaster.

Something that was never reflected in the world press freedom index was a raid of this newspaper’s offices in 2017 with a warrant that, unlike the Australians, was found to be illegal. 

The very notion of an ‘unfree press’ brings to mind repressive regimes in which journalists who perpetrate critical coverage are jailed - or pay with their lives.

And Samoa has come a long way in this respect in recent decades. 

Previously this newspaper’s offices were burned down and threats and threats of physical intimidation were commonplace. Our editor-in-chief was assaulted. 

These blatant attacks upon the free media have died down  - we welcome that. 

But attempts to stifle the press in Samoa are now pursued through passive not aggressive means. 

These restrictions on the right to practise journalism in Samoa are hardly new; but they have an insidious effect on the free press that belies our high ranking in the global index.

Unlike countries it outranks, such as Australia, America and the United Kingdom, Samoan journalists cannot request copies of official Government documents through freedom-of-information laws. Nor can they freely ask questions of the Government and expect an answer. 

The Government’s refusal to make information available to the media and expose itself to scrutiny has been on acute display in the past year, during two major health crises: last year’s measles epidemic and the more recent threat of the coronavirus. 

Only friendly journalists, for example, are invited to the Government’s regular updates on the status of the coronavirus in Samoa. 

For “press conferences” on the biggest global media story of the year - and perhaps the decade - no journalists are present, only radio announcers who are on the Government’s payroll and enjoy a shamelessly chummy relationship with the Prime Minister. 

These are not press conferences; they are poorly staged imitations. They do not inspire us to follow the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we sing hallelujah for a Government that “understands the role of the media". 

Innumerable queries to the Ministry of Health from this newspaper about the coronavirus and major issues such as the deportation of Samoan citizens have also gone unanswered. 

For seeking to serve our readers by providing information the free press in Samoa is regularly condemned. 

Recently the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi,  bellowed at a young Samoa Observer reporter for writing an article that simply reproduced comments he gave during one of his state-owned media addresses: “Don’t let women [...] write such articles.”

But, again, it must be acknowledged that this vitriol has not translated into Government officials showing up at the gates of our newspaper’s front gates. For this, we remain grateful. 

But a Government which is delivering its message free of questions is not a hallmark of a Government which understands the role of the media. These are, in fact, the trademarks of a political structure dedicated to frustrating this democratic ideal. 

This week alone we have seen the media banned from an inquiry into the proposed Land and Titles Court changes currently before Parliament.

These changes, if passed, will alter fundamentally the very nature of the Government in this country. For the fourth estate to be denied the right to report for the public on an inquiry into these bills and their implications is a disgrace. 

The Samoa Observer has also been denied the right to ask questions of the Prime Minister at weekly press conferences and even copies of bills before Parliament. 

When we look to countries which value press freedom, such as Australia, we have seen, by contrast, daily press conferences, oftentimes more than one, from more than one branch of Government, from which no journalist is excluded. 

Respect for the media shown by the Government, we believe, is a crucial but under examined aspect when judging the health of a country’s press freedom. 

But by the same token, the Samoa Observer has shown itself more than capable of operating successfully under the rules of this game imposed by the Government and without the luxuries afforded to our counterparts such as invitations to regularly question the country’s leaders. 

In an environment marked by the absence of a political opposition for decades, Samoa’s independent media have played the role of holding the Government to account. Often to their visible chagrin we continue to report on the activities of Government by obtaining copies of proposed legislation that are officially denied us; securing confidential cabinet directives; internal correspondence and more.

This reporting and the too often unacknowledged heroism of those sources who risk their jobs or even criminal penalty for providing the media with information or speak out on the record - is testament that the concept of a free press remains alive in Samoa.

But that is despite, not because of the Government.

A society which believes in the freedom of the press recognises the good that comes from a Government which permits journalists to ask questions; no harm can come of it. 

But Samoa’s status as an independent nation is only 60 years old. When compared to countries with a centuries’ old history of an independent press, the notion and value of a free media remains misunderstood by our citizens. 

Respect for the value of the ideals of independent reporting, critical analysis and fostering debate take a long time to take root.

The handful of independent Samoan media outlets not in the pocket of the Government are doing an admirable job.

But until the Government creates a transparent environment for them to operate within, the road to a culture of true media freedom in Samoa remains long. 

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