J.A.W.S.' U-turn on conflict of interest comments

Journalists’ Association of (Western) Samoa President Rudy Bartley has backtracked on comments suggesting Talamua Media’s close links to the Faatuatua i Le Atua Samoa ua Tasi’s (F.A.S.T.) party violate journalistic ethics. 

The Samoa Observer last month sought J.A.W.S.’ opinion about whether it was ethically appropriate for Talamua Media to advertise official F.A.S.T. party merchandise on its website while purportedly covering the election campaign as an objective news outlet. 

In an article published last month, Bartley was quoted as saying the close links between party and outlet was “not right”.

“I would have resigned from my position as a media person,” Bartley said of Talamua’s Editor and founder, Apulu Lance Polu. 

But in a letter published in today’s edition of the Samoa Observer, Bartley said he did not really expect Talamua’s chief to resign over his apparent open support of a party contesting the election.

Another expert in journalism disagreed with Bartley, saying there was a clear conflict in Talamua’s role. 

Journalism Lecturer at the National University of Samoa, Misa Vicky Lepou, said there should be clear lines between media outlets and political affiliations, and that as a long-serving member of Samoa’s media, Apulu should not be blurring them.

“I think he should switch professions,” she said on Tuesday.

On Saturday 24 October, the Samoa Observer published an article reporting on Bartley’s comments, as the President of J.A.W.S., about the Talamua Media website advertising F.A.S.T. party merchandise on its online store. 

In an interview with this newspaper, Bartley said that while Samoa’s Media Code of Practice has nothing specific to say about whether a news outlet can advertise or advertise party merchandise, he believed it is “unethical.”

“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 in his letter dated Monday 2 November - to which Apulu is copied in - Bartley said that because the official Code of Practice does not explicitly say anything on the issue, “there was not that much [for him] to say [on the issue].”

Instead, he claimed: “I said to [the reporter] that I can make a comment but only as a member of the media, and not as J.A.W.S. President.”

This is contradicted by a recording of the interview that shows that Bartley made no such caveats before making his remarks. 

“In my comments as a member of the media, I was concerned that advertising and notably political merchandise was being seen as part of the news segment of their online service,” he continued. 

“I suggested therefore for them to create a separate page for selling merchandise on their site. I found out after that they did have a “shop” for such activities.”

He goes on to claim that when he said Apulu should resign from Talamua, he was under the impression Apulu was running as an election candidate.

He writes that his remarks were about conflicts arising from those dual roles, not Apulu’s role solely as an editor. 

When he learned that the media-man is not a candidate he writes that he considered the issue of advertising “the end of the story”.

Letter to Samoa Observer and Talamua by James Robertson on Scribd

“As for resigning from his business [...] this is an unrealistic outcome I don’t think anyone would accept this decision, especially from J.A.W.S.,” Bartley writes.

“I may have been referring to his running for political office, suggesting that it would be good for him to step back from the political aspirations and evaluate the impact it will have on his media organisation.”

Bartley also said J.A.W.S. has never contacted Talamua directly over this issue because there has been no specific breach of the Code of Practice.

On Tuesday, Bartley did not respond to emailed requests for further comment on his letter. 

But journalism lecturer at the National University of Samoa Misa Vicky Lepou said the fact that there is nothing about this matter in the Code of Practice, was a reflection on the Code being out of date, not the behaviour of Talamua being appropriate. 

“It’s fair for Rudy to say that, if it’s not in the Code, I agree with him,” Misa said. 

“I think we also need to have a stronger form of guidelines than just a Code, it’s something we should look at post-Election, and for J.A.W.S. to take the lead on that discussion.

“There should be clear guidelines, better guidelines in the Code to specify the boundaries between media organisations or individual journalists when it comes to political affiliations. I think that should be clearly defined.”

Misa agreed that Apulu should not work in media if he is to campaign for a political party, because it blurs the lines between the professional and the personal spheres journalists are meant to keep separate.

“I think he should switch professions,” she said.

“Seriously, the credibility of what should be called the honourable profession is in limbo.”

“I think it’s unprofessional, to serve two Gods at the same time. I think [Apulu] should step away from doing the practice of journalism for now, until the Elections are over, and just let someone else run the Talamua because you will never get that fairness you are after.”

Engaging politically in this way threatens Talamua’s credibility in the eyes of the public, the academic said, especially if it affects how news articles are written.

Misa suggested that soon enough this issue could become a useful case study in journalism classes, to teach the future of Samoa’s journalism industry about the independence of the media.

For his part, Apulu defended the shop advertising F.A.S.T. merchandise, and clarified that Talamua does not actually make the merchandise sales itself but rather directs customers to the party’s store at the Maoto o Samoa in Siusega.

He also said his outlet was making space for a growing opposition party in an imbalanced media environment where the ruling party of Government has many print and broadcast options at their disposal. 

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

But Misa said this does not justify Talamua’s actions.

“I can’t justify such statements, he has been around in the media for so long, […] I don’t think I can agree with him,” she said.

In his letter, Bartley said J.A.W.S. intends to host an ‘Election Reporting’ workshop for the media, and that “selling political merchandise and direct media involvement in political parties/campaigns” will be on the agenda.

Bartley’s letter is printed in full on page 14. 

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