Govt. must address issues sooner: J.A.W.S.

The Government needs to address the public as soon as major issues develop, President of the Journalists Association of [Western] Samoa (J.A.W.S.) Rudy Bartley has said.

His comments come in the wake of a 22-hour delay on official information about a container ship that passed through Apia before three crew tested positive for coronavirus in American Samoa.

The public learned on Tuesday morning that American Samoa had informed the Ministry of Health on Monday evening about the cases, but an official comment from the National Emergency Operations Centre was not released until Tuesday at 7:30pm.

Waiting for information caused consternation on social media and around Samoa. 

The National Emergency Operations Centre hotlines report logging two calls from members of the public and five from businesses, agencies, or organisations looking for information on the vessel.

The Samoa Observer editorial team received around 25 calls, messages, or emails hoping for an update.

Mr. Bartley said with a matter as urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and the media expect information immediately.

“Someone has to tell us what is happening,” he said. 

“We would rather have someone say something than nothing. If you don’t provide people with information, what is going to happen? You are going to create a vacuum. Who is going to fill the vacuum: social media, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry who has an opinion, which is even more dangerous because it is not verified.”

On Wednesday, the N.E.O.C. held a press conference to address the issue. The Interim Chairperson Agafili Shem Leo, Director-General of Health Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, and Chief Executive Officer of the Samoa Ports Authority So’oalo Kuresa So’oalo were present.

They explained that the container ship the Fesco Askold was in Matautu wharf for less than 24 hours, that just four Government officials boarded the ship to conduct a health check and that those same four staff plus 13 stevedoring crew are now in quarantine for two weeks.

They also said they feel confident there is not enough risk to Samoa to justify having anyone else in quarantine, like the close contacts of the 17 people in quarantine today.

Asked why it took them a day to deliver an official statement, Agafili said the N.E.O.C. is committed to delivering one comprehensive, factual statement to the public and that it will take the time necessary to provide that.

“The Ministry is making sure the information is 100 per cent verified, and it’s okay to get the right information by the end but also a good idea to keep people in the loop,” Mr. Bartley said.

“They should provide it in a more timely way, it’s a balance. We want it urgently but we want it correct. There is no point getting it fast if half of it is all wrong.”

He said perhaps there is a “mechanism that is missing” in the N.E.O.C. that allows the agency to deliver brief statements as it conducts fuller investigations.

Mr. Bartley suggested the same model that applies for severe weather bulletins could be applied: short messages that ask readers to take precautions but to stay tuned for developments.

In the absence of official information, social media feeds quickly filled with rumours, he continued.

“When those things come out, everyone will comment and have their own two cents of how the story came about and it spreads like wildfire,” he said.

“My advice is to read it but don’t believe it until it is verified, and be cautious. Social media is not good all the time, and there are a lot of people out there who have bad intentions.”

But he recognised that most people posting incorrect or unverified information do have good intentions. In their concern over the pandemic, they are eager to warn friends and family of potential danger.

To those people he suggested they add a “disclaimer” to their social media posts or messages.

“We just want people to be careful and make sure they make it clear it’s their view, and that if you need facts follow up with the official comment. 

“If you know you can’t verify it you need to say ‘this is what I heard and it has not been verified by the Ministry of Health.’

“What you say goes a long way, so you should be responsible with what you say,” he said.

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