New parties call for equal time on taxpayer-funded media

State-owned media outlets are facing growing calls to grant equal airtime to opposition parties in the lead up to the 2021 General Election.

With just five months left before the national election takes place, the opposition parties vying for space in Parliament say the tax-payer funded outlets Savali and Radio 2AP need to make space for non-Government views.

Faatuaua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) Party leader Laauli Leautea Schmidt told the Samoa Observer that he feels his party has been “blocked” from using Radio 2AP.

“It’s the taxpayers’ radio station and the citizens of Samoa own it,” he said.

“What is happening is that they are only going to the Government to conduct their interviews but we haven’t had an opportunity, not us or the other political parties.” 

Laauli, whose party has 50 candidates registered to stand for election, said Radio 2AP and Savali have attended a single press conference each hosted by F.A.S.T., which he says is not fair.

“This should not happen this way. It’s all Government-owned and it’s owned by the people. It’s not owned particularly by a political party.

“They must ensure fairness and the reports must be accurate. Don’t be biased so the same questions that are asked of the Government are also asked of us. The biggest disappointment is not getting the chance.”

Misa Vicky Lepou, journalism lecturer at the National University of Samoa said it is no secret that the state-owned media have been biased towards the ruling party that governs them, which for the last nine election cycles has been the Human Rights Protection Party. 

“There should be no biases in terms of delivering the content of elections,” she said. 

“This is not a new issue, about the Government delivering their own agenda using their own [media…] [but] they have to bring in content publicising the intentions and concerns of other political parties as well.

“It’s their civic duty,” Misa said of the state-owned media. “It’s clear cut, and there is no question about it that it’s their civic responsibility to ensure no matter if it’s F.A.S.T., Tautua or S.S.I.G. (Samoa Solidarity International Group) or whoever, they should be given the same platform. 

“The people driving the content of media, content for the Government, should look at giving people a fair amount of airtime.”

She said Savali and Radio 2AP should be run by one ministry, instead of two (the Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, respectively) and that policies on fair election coverage could be devised.

The Journalism Association of Samoa would be best placed to help write those policies, she added, though they should not be hard and fast rules that could limit freedom of the press.

“I still remember Savea [Sano Malifa] writing about this, we have enough rules, enough legislation in this country.

“If we were to go about doing this it would further regulate and limit the movement of journalists, so we are not just creating this for the mouthpiece of Government and the authorities of the day but also journalists.”

She said a policy that defines the role of Government media and engages with the concerns of bias would be important.

J.A.W.S. President Rudy Bartley did not respond to an emailed request for comment by press time. 

The question over media access to state-owned outlets is not a new one.

In 2000, the Supreme Court sided with the then-leader of the opposition Tui Atua Tamasese Efi in a lawsuit against the Government, where he accused the previous Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana of effectively banning him from being interviewed in state-owned media (namely Savali, Televise Samoa and Radio 2AP at the time).

Tui Atua was leader of the opposition and head of the Christian Democratic Party at the time. He told the Supreme Court that Tofilau had said the Opposition would not be allowed to use state-owned media to “talk rubbish” or “propagate lies” without Tofilau’s permission.

He also accused the media outlets of failing to publish reports of specific events he was involved with, and that all up the Government was breaching the Constitution.

The Government denied Tui Atua’s claims, but in his decision, Justice Andrew Wilson said Tofilau had in effect placed a restriction or restraint on Tui Atua’s “free access to the Government-controlled media,” and that while not actually written directive or ban, it effectively hindered his freedoms.

“Although no formal Government policy or instruction or declaration or directive was shown to have existed, a practice developed to not give the applicant media coverage; a pattern of exclusion existed,” he wrote. 

Justice Wilson ordered Prime Minister Tuilaepa to write to the heads of Televise Samoa, the Department of Broadcasting and the Savali newspaper that: “there is no ban or restriction upon the applicant or any member of his Party from having access to television, radio and/or the Savali newspaper.

“In my judgement, it would be a grave impediment to the freedom of expression […] if those in Opposition who seek to criticise the Government in the media (whether Government-controlled or not) could only do so with impunity if they first had to obtain the permission of a Government Minister to whose Government the criticism was directed,” he said.

He stopped short of outlining rules or minimum standards to access to Government-controlled media, but said his decision should serve as: “a guide for the Government itself and the Heads of Government-controlled media corporations, departments and agencies who need to treat the sometimes ill-defined path between responsibility to the Government of the day, whom they must serve, on the one hand, and accountability and the preservation of fundamental rights under the Constitution, on the other hand.”

Tautua Samoa Party leader Afualo Dr. Wood Salele said fair coverage is crucial for democracy.

He said media coverage helps the public understand a party’s platforms and informs them before they make a decision on Election Day.

“We would like the media to be at the forefront of these issues,” he told the Samoa Observer.

“If there is a debate, they should be neutral. What is happening now is that they go and interview Tuilaepa but we need to make sure that they [Radio 2AP] should be one of the core platforms for future elections.”

He said so far this year, Savali has reported on the Tautua Samoa Party but Radio 2AP has not, although both did during the 2016 election campaign. 

Afualo said he intends to ramp up his party’s broadcast campaigning in the future.

Samoa First Political Party leader Feagaimaalii Bruce Utaileuo said he feels Government media do not give his party the opportunity to speak on their platforms, and that recently the party has stopped asking.

“I am not too sure why they did not want to record our opinions on the issues,” he said.

“We wanted to share our opinions and what we think on a lot of issues mentioned by the Government but it seems that they won’t give us the chance to do that.

“They only seem to record the Government’s side but they have to come out and get the opinions of small parties like us and from the public and that sort of thing.

“I feel that the government owned media, I hate to say it but they discriminate against people sometimes.”

He did add he intends to contact the various outlets again in the future as they continue campaigning. 

Tumua ma Puleono, which is a small party in coalition with F.A.S.T., spokesperson John Malaeolevavau Peterson said the media environment is “lopsided,” with too much coverage of the Government itself.

Since the party’s launch in May, just Samoa Observer and Talamua have approached Tumua ma Puleono, Mr. Peterson said, and he could not recall a time a Government-run outlet had sought comment or an interview.

“It’s very obvious, the imbalance in terms of opportunities for other voices, for other political points of view,” he said.

“It looks like the Prime Minister takes up the mainstream channels like TV1, TV3, now Upu Mama and the Government channel, on 2AP and Savali.

“It’s not fair on others.”

Last week, M.P.M.C. Chief Executive Officer Agafili Shem Leo and M.C.I.T. C.E.O. Talatalaga Fualau Matau were approached about whether their Savali or Radio 2AP would be changing their election coverage to include non-H.R.P.P. candidates. 

So far neither have responded.

The following questions were sent to both Agafili and Talatalaga, about Savali and 2AP respectively. 

Will Savali/2AP editorial staff and reporters actively seek interviews with or coverage of the non-HRPP candidates in the upcoming election?

Does the Savali/2AP editorial team expect its reporters to actively seek interviews with, or coverage of non-HRPP candidates?

Will Savali/2AP be inviting non-HRPP candidates to give on-camera interviews broadcast live via your Facebook page? 

As a newspaper/radio station, is Savali/2AP coverage and its reporters beholden to the Samoa Media Code of Practice? Why or why not?

Since the year 2000, when the Supreme Court found the Government HAD been restricting access to state owned media, do you feel Savali/2AP has opened up more, less or stayed the same with respect to seeking and publishing the views and activities of non-HRPP or non-Government actors? 

*With Tina Mata’afa-Tufele

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