Journalists' union calls for Govt. transparency

The Journalists Association of Western Samoa (J.A.W.S.) has marked World Press Freedom Day with a call on the Government to support private media by operating more transparently during times of health crises. 

J.A.W.S. President Rudy Bartley told the Samoa Observer during an interview on World Press Freedom Day on Sunday that the Government could provide more information to the media.

“World Press Freedom Day (in Samoa) is always a significant event for the local media. It is a time for reflection and celebration,” Bartley said 

“Honouring the work of the local media and promoting a free press in Samoa’s democratic process has been a recurring theme for many years.

“Providing true, verified and honest information to the people is an important role of the free press. 

“Dissemination of information for all citizens, including leaders, to make informed decisions in more critical times is a must for the Government. 

“The outbreak of [...] measles in Samoa and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a testament [to  … the principle that] good information saves lives; misinformation is a danger to society.”

“The media has been an essential source for public information and has helped people understand the nature and scope of these two major events for Samoa alone. 

“Providing correct up-to-date information to the people in dealing with such health crises is an essential part of the work of the media. Controlling the flow of this important information by the Government media is a hindrance to the efforts by the private media. This is a challenge faced by many private media [organisations] in Samoa.”

Bartley acknowledged that Samoa remained only among a handful of nations to have so far had no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

But he noted that the National Emergency Operations Centre was recently reconvened to oversee the Government’s response to the coronavirus, after it had performed the same role during last year’s measles epidemic. That, Bartley argues, should have prepared to conduct regular media briefings.

A total of 83 people lost their lives during the epidemic last year, mostly young children. 

“For many months, key messaging and various master plans have been released by the government media to keep the people informed of what is happening,” he said.

Bartley acknowledged the Government’s “commitment to keeping the public informed”.

“[But] J.A.W.S. still feels that there is an absence of independent/private media and presence to provide a more open and balanced interactive sessions between the government and media,” Bartley said. 

“This is still the greatest challenge and fear for the local [and] private media not receiving ‘fair treatment and access to government announcements’ to exercise that independence. 

“We hope in time, the private media can make a bigger contribution in getting the message out and be the “eyes and ears” of the people of Samoa during these difficult times.

“Let this be a reminder once again that: The private media and government media all have important roles to play especially in national emergencies.”

Regular press briefings on the COVID-19 situation have been held by the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, but radio announcers from state-owned broadcasters have been admitted. The Government has previously justified the exclusion of other media on the basis that having too many reporters gather in one place would violate the state of emergency prohibition on mass gatherings. 

Quoting the Centre for Preparedness and Response, an American think tank dedicated to overseeing responses to emergencies Bartley said: “As communicators, the media need to share the same goal during an emergency: getting reliable, updated information out first and reaching the most people. The 24-hour news cycle is a great way to draw public attention to the issue and provide key safety messages in real-time. 

“Like Government media, reporters from private media have a job to do and have deadlines to meet. Meeting deadlines can save lives and a strong relationship with the media can help make that happen.”

In what he described as very unusual times, Bartley said “there needs to be more cooperation and collaboration amongst government and private media.”

“This is to provide a timely and useful flow of information to the people who need it in order to save lives. We are so fortunate that Samoa is still coronavirus-free and this we hope to remain as is,” Bartley said.

“Other than shutting down our borders, preparing our people with the correct-useful messaging and practical actions to take, are the only things we can do right now to protect ourselves.”

Recounting the words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, Bartley concluded by saying : “I note that the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is ‘journalism without fear or favour’. I urge all States to ensure that media workers can do their jobs without fear, keeping in mind that journalism expands the public’s right to know and the public’s right to accountable government.” 

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