Health Chief refuses to answer English questions
The Director General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, refused to answer questions asked in English during a press conference on Monday, claiming that Samoan is the Government's official language and therefore he was not obliged to respond.
During a National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) press conference, Leausa responded in Samoan to questions asked in English, despite the latter being one of the two official languages of the country.
Asked to repeat his answer again in English, the Health chief replied: “Leai,” (no) causing a ripple of laughter among the crowd, including from people employed at state-owned media outlets.
“You can bring a translator for yourself if you don’t mind. I have decided to speak to you in Samoan so that I can express myself clearly,” Leausa said (in English).
The Health Chief's decision to refused to answer certain questions on Monday came after he was found to have failed to disclose information about a coronavirus scare to the public last week.
Leausa was informed by American Samoan authorities at about 9.30 pm last Monday that three sailors aboard a ship that had been in Samoan waters for nearly a day, the Fesco Askold, had coronavirus. He did not disclose that information to the public. The incident was revealed by the Samoa Observer 12 hours later.
The N.E.O.C. delivered a complete outline of its response to the incident nearly a full day after it first received the warning.
The interim Chair of the N.E.O.C., Agafili Shem Leo, was also present at Monday's press conference, the Centre’s second in a week, and did not join in Leausa's English ban and spoke freely in English.
Agafili said he would be giving more press conferences more often as repatriation flights brought Samoans home towards the end of the year “as information comes in.”
Leausa was speaking during the second N.E.O.C. press conference in a week, in the wake of complaints that the Government has been too slow to release information in the public interest when it comes to the coronavirus.
Asked a second time if he would repeat his responses in English, Leausa said no.
“I am sorry, I have decided not to speak to you in English when I explain my answers,” he said (in English).
The reporter from E.F.K.S. T.V. also asked that Leausa’s response to her question be repeated in English for the sake of their viewers.
“Who are our English viewers?,” Leausa asked.
He asked the reporter which media organisation they represented, and reiterated his choice to speak in Samoan only.
“You can translate it to your viewers. I have used our first and official language of our Government, with all due respect,” he said.
The N.E.O.C. press conference, just five days after its last open forum on Wednesday 9 November, appeared to be an attempt to increase transparency and communication.
The N.E.O.C. came under fire from the media, politicians and the public for taking nearly a whole day to release official information.
“I have spoken in English many times and might have caused some confusion, but it is better to speak directly in our language,” Leausa said towards the end of the press conference.
“There are you guys (other media) to translate it to this young lady [a non-Samoan speaking reporter from this newspaper] and also the E.F.K.S. T.V., it’s nice you guys have a newer English language, you’re all young and fresh out of school, and you are all suited to explain to our country.
“I apologise we are a bit too old and therefore prefer to speak in the language endorsed by our Government, our official language. Whatever I might have said wrong, may it come back to me.”
Asked whether the press conferences will become a more regular feature of the N.E.O.C. 's activities, Agafili responded in English.
“Yes, I think that will be organised through the press secretary. We also know you guys (the media) are also very busy, we are even much more busy," he said.
“But we would like to inform the country as information comes in. We have another flight on the 27th, 4th and 7th and we will call press conferences when we know it’s a matter of public interest.”
Since the scare, the Government of Samoa Facebook Page has shared dozens of photos highlighting the repatriation process at the airport, and shared a detailed explainer about how Samoa takes in and processes container ships at the wharf.