Media Owner downplays F.A.S.T. links

The Owner of Talamua Media and Editor, Apulu Lance Polu, has defended selling political merchandise on his website, despite calls from the Journalists Association of [Western] Samoa (J.A.W.S.) to take them down.

Apulu, who is a member of the Fa'atuatua i Le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party, although is not standing for election, said there is nothing wrong with his news outlet website selling party merchandise.

The online store is connected to the long-running news website and currently sells F.A.S.T. hats and tee-shirts for $30 and $35, and advertises a second hand car and two properties in Si'usega.

President of the Journalists Association of Samoa (J.A.W.S.) Rudy Bartley said the merchandise on sale is a clear conflict of interest for Talamua. 

“Personally, I think it is unethical, it is not right. As media we are supposed to be impartial, we should be in the middle," he said.

“If it was me, I would have resigned from my position as a media person. They should have gone out of Talamua and done another entity which is there to run the campaign, sell the merchandise, separate from the media.”

But Apulu said making space for F.A.S.T. on his website is about righting an imbalanced media environment, where the ruling party in Government has an abundance of broadcast and print options at their disposal.

He said if the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) can use two television stations, the Government radio station 2AP and the Government newspaper Savali ahead of the election, then there is no issue with F.A.S.T. selling merchandise through Talamua.

“I like what they are doing, I like the sound of what they think they will do, and I hope they will do when they get into Government,” he said. “I thought we could provide a balance.”

Apulu said he is not concerned that his readers will find Talamua biased in its reporting, and will leave it to readers to judge as they see fit. 

The media-man said when the campaign season begins this week, all parties should have equal access to the various media outlets in Samoa, whether they are privately owned or held by the Government, to talk to the people about their goals. 

One day, he would like to see the Government newspaper and radio station privatised so that it can be a tax-payer funded resource for all people, not just the Government of the day. 

Without equal access, the smaller parties have to “resort” to social media for their campaigning and gradually build up an audience, while the established Parliamentarians are broadcast directly into people’s homes, Apulu said. 

“Part of this is our attempt to give voice to a party that doesn’t have access.”

Apulu insists Talamua’s commitment to journalistic ethics is steadfast, saying the coverage online looks at both new parties and the Government’s work without privileging one over the other. 

“We always keep in mind the huge imbalance in how the media has been utilised. It’s a dangerous and unhealthy thing that the Government is influencing privately-owned media, which for a small country means the public can easily be swayed.”

In 2017, Samoa published its first formal Media Code of Practice. It includes a section on election coverage, saying election reporting should be “impartial and balanced.”

Mr. Bartley said selling political party merchandise is a form of campaigning that should be left to non-media outlets.

“You shouldn’t associate a media organisation with campaigning, it will taint the reputation of the organisation, you will lose integrity and credibility.

“People who go online to read your stories, they will think they will read nothing against F.A.S.T.”

Mr. Bartley said he believes if it wants to sell F.A.S.T. merchandise, Talamua should establish a separate entity or website for that purpose, rather than use the news site. 

“If you campaign, you campaign, but not as a news [company]. Someone else can do it, but not them.

“Are you there to sell tee-shirts, or are you there to do the news? The less messier the better, right now he is in a mess.”

But Apulu disagrees.

“The shop is just another shop. We bring things people would like to sell,” Apulu said.

He said Talamua backing F.A.S.T. is no different to media-mogul Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper’s explicit support for British leader Tony Blair in 1997.

“I think it’s good, from the viewpoint that when people read anything in the newspaper about Tony Blair and his Government, readers will know this coverage may be biased because this newspaper supports a particular person, a particular Prime Minister.

“If a person who reads our stories and reads about F.A.S.T., they will know that this is a story because Talamua supports the F.A.S.T. party. 

“It’s the same when you read about the Government in the Savali. We know it’s biased because it’s the Government newspaper. They won’t tell you the bits and pieces that make the Government look bad.

“Having been in the media for so long, it is a good thing for a publication to declare that bias because it gives people an understanding that this story is biased because this particular newspaper supports this Government. 

“Do you believe the Savali when you read a story in it about the Government?”

F.A.S.T. founding member and leader Laauli Leautea Schmidt said Talamua and his party have been involved together “from the start,” with Talamua publishing all party news.

“It’s an arrangement,” Laauli said on Thursday.

He confirmed the merchandise sold is used to raise party funds. Apulu said Talamua does not actually handle the transactions but rather facilitates the sale that happens at the Maota o Samoa service station. 

“We are not getting any cut out of it, it is our support to help out with what they are doing,” Apulu said.

“I am not naïve, there are a lot of people that help others with political causes, but they do it quietly. I should have done it quietly, but I am saying it publically now, that is our support for the F.A.S.T.  party. 

Laauli said he hopes to extend this campaigning activity to all media outlets, and that the party has begun with Talamua because Apulu hosts the merchandise sale for free.

He said he could not specify how much the party hopes to fundraise through merchandise or other activities.  

Apulu said he has an issue with the association “moralising” over Talamua when it has overlooked other things he considers more serious breaches of the Code of Ethics in the past.

“I know other journalists have made noises about things the association should have handled.

“I don’t like people moralising to me when there is a stark existence of inaction done on this, issues which are more important than what Talamua is involved with.”

He said a “true” conflict of interest is when Government Ministers do not relinquish their business interests after they are elected. Even if they sit out of procurement meetings that might include them, their friends in Cabinet will help them anyway, Apulu said. 

J.A.W.S. President Mr. Bartley said the association is limited in how it can respond to alleged breaches of the Code, saying he has to wait for a formal complaint process to run its course.

But it hopes to review this system in the future.

“We are just here in an advisory role. The Media Council does the complaints. In our mandate we can’t go and prosecute people for breaches, but people can make complaints and that is how things are done. 

“The Council has recognised that there needs to be a mechanism for us to determine there has been a breach and act on it.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Bartley said it is not entirely clear whether there has been an actual breach.

“[First] it needs to be made clear that there is a breach [of the Code of Practice] and what are the breaches, and then decide what needs to be done.

“The thing we can do is do an advisory, we can write to all the media and say please refer to your Media Code of Practice.”

The Code does not specifically mention advertising or campaigning for political parties or candidates. Under Election Reporting, there are seven bullet points to guide reporters and editors.

One of those is to “not permit a political candidate to dictate or influence improperly the journalist’ work.”

“It depends on your interpretation but how it is written, it’s not specific,” Mr. Bartley said.

Media Council of Samoa Acting Chairperson Galumalemana Alfred Hunkin has been approached for his comments. 

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