The media and electoral accountability in 2021

As the country gets to the tailend of 2020, the realisation that Samoa’s next general election is around the corner has started to hit home.

Political parties and candidates have taken to the “airwaves” in recent weeks, utilising social media platforms, radio stations or private-owned television channels, in a bid to reach out to Samoa’s eligible voters.

And in an age of information overload, where content of all shapes and sizes now comes straight to your fingertips courtesy of your smartphone 24/7, it can be hard trying to keep track of news and information on a daily basis and extracting what is relevant for you and your family’s use.

It is why the role of the media sector in any thriving democracy is critical and complements democratic processes such as general elections. Media reportage ensures transparency in the electoral process, compels the timely reporting of election results, and provides candidates with a multitude of platforms where they can share their plans and visions for their constituency for the benefit of the voters. 

Remove media coverage of a general election from the equation and you get a less informed population, who without access to multiple sources of news and information are not in a position to make choices and immediately become disempowered, which can bring the integrity of the whole electoral process into question. 

In some democracies, governments address these information vacuums by creating and tasking state-owned broadcasting companies to give access to politicians from both ends of the political spectrum, ensuring that even political parties or candidates that aspire to represent marginalised populations have equal time on the airwaves.

It is in that vein that we draw your attention to the recent call by the leader of the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party, Laauli Polataivao Schmidt, for the media to maintain its objectivity as well as appeals by former Opposition politicians Olo Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong for all leaders to have access to State-owned media.

As Samoan citizens who are now seeking a return to public office in the next general election, it is within Olo and Faumuina’s rights to call for equal access to the Savali newspaper and the 2AP radio station. 

In fact Section 1(9) of the Samoa Media Code of Practice – which the current Human Rights Protection Party [HRPP] Government supports – promotes equal coverage for all political parties including smaller parties and independent candidates.

Section 1(9) states: “Grant equal coverage – including opportunities to present arguments on-air or in print – to the principal political parties; and grant a level of coverage to smaller parties and independent candidates appropriate to their status in the electorate."

The above provision in the Code of Practice is an attempt to promote what some call “media pluralism”, where a diversity of voices and viewpoints through the various platforms will ensure there is no dominance by a personality or even a government over public opinion and the political agenda.

We are aware of how lopsided the use of State-owned media companies in Samoa has become in recent years, and we hope that the spotlight that they have come under in recent weeks will compel their management to revisit their editorial policies.

The assertion by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, when speaking through his weekly 2AP radio program on Thursday, that political parties and candidates can use 2AP and Savali newspaper is a welcome development. 

But his instructions that they pay a fee, in order to get on air or be given editorial space, defeats the notion of them being categorised State-owned broadcaster and newspaper in the first place. 

Nevertheless, the invitation a fortnight ago by the F.A.S.T. leadership to the State-owned media to attend their press conferences is a step in the right direction. That working relationship needs to be nurtured for the good of the citizens.

The call for the media to be objective and impartial at this juncture, with the 2021 General Election five months away, is also timely and should be seen as an opportunity for us in the media sector to subject our news content to quality checks.

The recent debate between the Journalist Association of (Western) Samoa President Rudy Bartley, the Talamua Media Editor and founder Apulu Lance Pulu, and the link of the latter to the F.A.S.T. political party raises important questions about whether media organisations can self-regulate their content while ensuring impartiality and objectivity in their content.

At the end of the day all media should strive to inform and educate their readers, viewers and listeners. A thriving democracy with an engaged, empowered and knowledgeable population will ultimately depend on how well the Fourth Estate does its job.

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