Today is World Press Freedom Day, so what can we do for Samoa?

Today is World Press Freedom Day. Celebrated on the 3rd of May every year, the Samoa Observer joins the rest of the world to commemorate the importance of Media Freedom under the theme “Journalism without Fear of Favour.” On this day, we are thinking about the role of the free media and what is happening in Samoa. We know there are many challenges. But those challenges also present opportunities.  Today we see an opportunity to look back at history, remember what happened, what it can tell us and how lessons from the past can help to navigate us into the future. On this occasion of World Press Freedom Day, and speaking of “Journalism without Fear or Favour”, we are reprinting a “Letter to our Readers” penned by Editor-in-Chief and World Press Freedom Hero, Gatoaitele Savea Sano Malifa, in 1996. 

To our readers, 

Since my name and that of a colleague were unfairly slammed about like punch bags by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament last week, and since this newspaper’s credibility was sorely questioned and undermined in the process, I feel duty-bound to offer our side of the story. I am not out to defend ourselves because there is nobody to defend against. Nor am I trying to make excuses because we haven’t done anything wrong. I do this reluctantly and humbly. 

The word fairness comes to mind. If the country’s leaders and lawmakers are not fair in their treatment of the ordinary citizens, where are they to find shelter and peace of mind? We had thought the PM and his deputy would have the decency not to stoop so low in attacking people who are not around to defend themselves. Parliament should be where people seek refuge. Not a place to fear. MPs are protected by their parliamentary privileges and the Standing Orders, but what is there to protect the honour of a man stricken by them in his absence? Is there justice any more in this land of sadness? 

I say I am duty-bound to write these words. By that I mean it is our duty to tell the public we serve, the truth. 

We cannot allow them to even wonder if we’re guilty of what we have been accused of. The truth is that last week’s nasty episode in Parliament was just a small part of the government’s overall campaign to intimidate the independent press to silence its critics. This is a dangerous crossroad we have arrived at on our democratic journey. 

It’s time to sit down and think hard. 

The first thing I want to stress is that we do not take sides. Ours is a walk along the middle line. If Tofilau sits down and thinks back to the 13-week public servants strike in 1981, which he helped launch, he will soon understand what I’m talking about. Tuiatua was prime minister then. We were sued for $50,000 by the Minister of Justice for defamation when we alleged that his family did not pay full duty on two containers of building materials. The containers were shipped over from Singapore on the maiden voyage of a newly-acquired government ferry. They were taken from the wharf at night. The Minister lost the case and he resigned. Did Tuiatua say a word of complaint to this newspaper? Did he harbour ill-feelings? Did his government try to silence the newspaper? The answer to those questions is no. 

But that strike and that court case cost him his leadership. I grieve every time I think of the cartoon by the Samoa Sun during the strike which ridiculed his government by naming a sow after him and the feeding piglets after his ministers. Did Tuiatua and his ministers complain? Did they sue the Sun for slander? No, they did not. You know a man by his actions. Your admiration is enlarged by the sincerity of his silence. Imagine what the present crowd would do if they were compared to a pig. They would holler blue murder. 

I am sure the PM would recall that this newspaper stood firmly by the PSA’s petition for higher salaries at the time. He should remember me shaking his hand in Parliament when his government won. We knew that the strike was engineered to topple Tuiatua’s government but our main concern was the welfare of the public servants and those who depended on them. The paper criticised the government of Tuiatua for failing to announce a salary increase and end the strike, which was crippling the country. Tofilau’s party came to power because of that strike. Or does he remember?

Tuilaepa was the deputy financial secretary at the time. He knew exactly what was going on. He was in a position to do something to save the country from the financial mess it was being dragged into. He did very little. The aim, obviously, was to remove Tuiatua’s government. Years later, a bag of money came out of his office to help defeat Tuiatua in the general elections. And now, he’s ceaselessly pointing his finger at the mess in 1981, accusing Tuiatua of being incompetent. And yet he was partly responsible. I say this to Tuilaepa: Please stop this boring childishness. Don’t you know that he who keeps looking at the past gets turned to a pillar of salt? That’s what the Bible says. The same Bible from which Tofilau quoted that an evil-hearted man’s bones would be “rotted”. But why all this animosity? Why all this hatred?

Now this newspaper is being accused by Tofilau and his government of being biased. Some people do have short memories. We have been producing this newspaper for 16 years now. In that time, we have been sued three times by Tofilau and his cabinet ministers for defamation. The writs ranged from $250,00 to $200,000. I was personally threatened to kill in my office by a Tofilau minister. He also threatened to kill my family including my parents and children. His brothers later physically assaulted me in public. The printing plant that represented years of hard work and housed personal belongings with irreplaceable value was gutted by a “suspicious” fire. As the fire was just starting, the fire truck from the Fire Brigade stood by helplessly. Why, because either its water pump was not working or it did not have water in its tank. As a result, all was destroyed including one of the most well-equipped commercial printing companies in town, Instant Printing Co Ltd. That was on 3 April 1994. To date, we have yet to receive a report from either the Police or the Fire Brigade. Did we complain? Did we accuse anybody? No, we merely picked the pieces up and carried on. 

Tuilaepa is right that the government granted incentive for the paper to import its replacement printing press. We thanked the government for that and even acknowledged the incentives immediately in a story in the paper. But I want to point out that we would not have asked for incentives if the plant had not been gutted. For the record, we had paid full duty on all the printing equipment and supplies we had bought over the years. We had never asked for incentives. But when we got burnt, we felt we were entitled to some help from the government. After all, we employed over 30 people then, paid taxes and import duties as well. The duty on newsprint is not reduced in the amendments to the Customs Tariff now with Parliament. There are duties too on chemical, plates, films and replacement printing equipment. Are we complaining? No. We’re only saying that the 10% VAGST should be scrapped because it is responsible for the unbearable cost of living causing much suffering today. Is that illegal? Is that unreasonable?

This newspaper does not tell lies. If it makes a genuine mistake, it apologises immediately for it. We report on the government’s alleged malpractices because that is our job. We criticise the government because it needs to be criticised. Like everybody else, government leaders make mistakes. So they need to be reminded about them in order that they can put a stop to them. Any other government is aware of the benefits of this random check. They are even thankful for it. Not our government though. It hates to be criticised. Our government leaders think they’re God. Well, they’re not. If they were, children would not be slaving on the streets today while they’re living in cosy houses and driving expensive cars. 

But because they hate being criticised. Polynesian Airlines quite leisurely clocked up in 1994 as MP Letiu Tamatoa has pointed out – some $70 million in debt. And neither Tofilau nor Tuilaepa would explain the many allegations of corruption emanating from within the government. They just keep evading them with stupid excuses and counter-accusations. Last Friday though they had a change of mind. They tried to explain how “Tofilau’s children” got the license to operate that petrol station in Savai’i. Perhaps they should keep this up by explaining whether it’s true that the government owes $400 million in foreign debt when it was only $30 million in 1982, and whether the 40 cattle shipped to a farm in Savai’i was paid for, and whether a cabinet minister is running a fleet of buses in Upolu, and whether Samoa’s cows are pregnant four times a year, and so on and so on…..

I want to tell you that the Samoa Observer is open to anybody who has views to express. It is a forum for public discussion on any subject within proper legal boundaries. 

We invite you to use it. 

Today, I sincerely apologise to our readers and the public for coming out in the open this way. As I said before, I feel humble and reluctant doing this. But I am given no choice. 

I believe in principles and not prejudices, in core issues and not flagrant rhetoric. There’s an old belief where I come from: It’s better to be chosen than to want, speak when you’re spoken about. At a time when the public is unsure who to believe in, we ask that you look to your conscience for guidance. Follow Sir Winston Churchill’s maxim: “The only guide to a man is his conscience, the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions”.

Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa and God bless. 


Savea Sano Malifa, 

Publisher

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