PEOPLE OF 2020: The source
The year 2020 was supposed to be the year in which confidential Government information stopped falling into journalists' hands and being made available to the public.
In late 2019 the Government was beginning to show obvious frustration that it was unable to control the flow of internal information.
The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, proposed sanctions of up to seven years imprisonment for any Government employee caught leaking information.
But looking back on the year that was, it is safe to say the proposal did not have the intended chilling effect on sources who braved the risks to make information available to the public.
A steady stream of leaked documents, tip-offs and confidential conversations from sources shone a light on plans, secrets and conflicts within the Government of which the public would otherwise never have been aware of - all thanks to courageous and principled sources.
One leaked document in April especially framed the debate on what was the defining political issue for the year - the Government’s proposed fundamental overhaul of the judicial system.
A letter obtained by the Samoa Observer showed that the Prime Minister’s plans were met with fierce opposition from the judicial branch.
The "collective view of the Samoa Judiciary" on three pieces of legislation that had been introduced to Parliament one month before was expressed in a letter to the Executive Director of the Samoa Law Reform Commission, Teleiai Dr. Lalotoa Mulitalo.
Separating the court system through the establishment of an independent Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) was, in the Judges’ “respectful view flawed, unworkable and carries significant inherent risks”.
“This is a slippery slope and we are sure the Government does not want the Constitution to become the plaything of politicians”, the letter, signed by Judges of the nation’s criminal and civil courts read.
In criticisms that would echo through the nine months of debate that preceded the bills’ passage through Parliament, the Justices said they were at a “loss” to understand a proposal that had been “dangerously” rushed and ill-considered.
This was followed by another leaked letter, this one emanating from the executive branch of Government, the Prime Minister was found to have been demanding answers from the court about a decision to grant bail to men facing charges of conspiring to assassinate him.
In a March missive, leaked months later, the Prime Minister singled out a decision made by the courts a month earlier to grant bail to two accused plotters, Malele Paulo, also known as King Faipopo, and Lemai Faioso Sione, as “comical”.
The Prime Minister wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, Moliei Simi Vaai.
Acting Chief Justice Vui Clarence Nelson; the President of the Lands and Titles Court Fepulea’i Atilla Ropati and Supreme Court Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren were also copied in.
“The Police informed me that a Judge granted bail to Lema’i and King Faipopo without any money being paid [for bail]?" a translation of Tuilaepa's letter read.
“They could’ve at least paid [two] tala but there was not even a snot, the mind screams with amazement about such comical decision making. What is the policy in terms of bail?"
The letter was raised throughout a year in which questions were raised about the Prime Minister’s respect for the role and independence of the judiciary by legal experts in Samoa and around the world.
Later correspondence from the Prime Minister also drew a frustrated response.
A report on a request made by Tuilaepa to the Cabinet that six Government employees standing down from their positions to contest the election continue to be paid until Parliament is dissolved drew a swift rebuke from the Prime Minister.
(The request was later withdrawn from Cabinet).
"[I’m] not sure where they got the Cabinet papers,” Tuilaepa told TV3.
The Prime Minister said the Samoa Observer had “stolen” a document requesting payouts for individuals all of whom were leaving the public service to stand for his ruling Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.).
Another Government initiative that was brought under scrutiny by information provided by sources was the fast-changing $800,000 Vaia’ata prison project.
The prison was initially controversial because it had been awarded to no company without tender, with a plan for prisoners to complete the construction themselves.
The Prisons Minister defended the unorthodox means of building public infrastructure.
But criticism of the project did not end there after the Samoa Observer obtained documents showing that despite the Savai’i project only received approval from the Planning and Urban Management Agency (P.U.M.A.) in November of 2019.
That is despite the fact that work started about April of that year, soon after the Prime Minister and several members of his cabinet attended an official groundbreaking at the site.
For this unapproved period of construction the prison project was halted by the Ministry of Works, Transport and Infrastructure.
The Finance Minister and Chairman of the Tenders Board, Sili Epa Tuioti, later said that the remainder of the project would be put out to tender. But little more than a week later that decision was overturned by Cabinet.
The activities of P.U.M.A. itself were revealed to be under the microscope in October when the Samoa Observer obtained documents showing that the organisation’s boss, Limutau Kerisimasi Amituana’i, was under investigation by the Public Service Commission over a recruitment decision.
Documents obtained by the Samoa Observer showed “improperly manipulated the recruitment and selection process” for which he would face disciplinary proceedings.
The Commission overturned the appointment of Lupeotalalelei Tipi to the position of Senior Strategic Planning Ofﬁcer as part of their investigation.
Ms. Tipi was the Assistant Secretary to Magele Hoe Viali – at the time he was C.E.O. of the Samoa Airport Authority. Magele has since gone on to become the Chief Executive Officer of the M.W.T.I.
The position was awarded instead to Hans Fa’auuga Iere, who had mounted an appeal after being overlooked for the position.
But the flow of information from sources was not entirely smooth.
On several occasions, the subjects of stories demanded the newspaper breach its longstanding policy and reveal its sources - these were always met without success.
In November the Chief Reporter of the newspaper Joyetter Feagaimaali'i submitted to questioning at the request of authorities at about 2pm at the Police headquarters in Apia.
The matter related to a Police Professional Standards Unit investigation into a story that the Samoa Observer never published about an as-yet incomplete audit report before Parliament.
The Police Commissioner, Fuiavailiili Egon Keil, confirmed that Feagaimaali'i was not the subject of a criminal probe despite being asked about the identity of her sources.
“She was never detained or interrogated. She was asked to come in for a voluntary statement. She did come in on her own and subsequently refused to provide any responses to basic investigative questions,” he said.
In November internal financial statements showed that the national carrier, Samoa Airways, was in the words of one observer, former C.E.O. of Polynesian Airlines, Fauo'o Fatu Tielu “technically bankrupt”.
The company’s financial statement for the 2018-2019 Financial Year showed it had incurred losses of $25 million that year, taking its accumulated losses to some $64 million.
More concerningly for some, the company’s equity was now in negative territory meaning that its liabilities now outweighed its assets by some $11 million.
“The [airline’s] total liabilities exceeded its total assets by $11,258,751. The conditions indicate the existence of material uncertainty, which may cast significant doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern,” Jaslyn T. Mariner-Leota, the Assistant Controller and Auditor-General wrote on 28 October 2019.
The viability of the airline’s finances was thrown further into doubt by a Samoa Observer investigation that revealed Samoa Airways owed Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey's Hotel & Bungalows some $400,000 in unpaid accommodation bills.
But despite the finances of the national carrier, which, in its previous incarnation, once grew to occupy the size of nearly one-half the country’s economic output being a running sore spot for the Government, this was one leak about which the Prime Minister projected a relaxed image.
“There is nothing to worry about! So what if the losses accumulate to $100 million, the [airline] is to cater for our people,” the Prime Minister said on his TV3 programme on Wednesday.
Instead of resorting to legislation to deter future stories the Prime Minister instead took a different tack and ended the year on 10 December by appealing to journalists to simply stop publishing documentation that might cast the Government in a bad light: “Leave the debts to the Government who are experts in the handling of the debts and stop prying [into the finances] of the company.”