P.M. scoffs at Samoa Observer's People of the Year

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has criticised the Samoa Observer's choice for the “People of the Year” of 2020, describing it as a tainted accolade. 

Tuilaepa launched his last of several attacks on the Samoa Observer for the year in a New Year’s Eve press conference with the state-owned media outlet 2AP. 

Tuilaepa also repeated past criticism that the newspaper published “fake news” and had unqualified staff. But on Thursday afternoon he also suggested that working at the Samoa Observer made journalists stupid and pushed them to the brink of insanity. 

The Prime Minister was asked what he thought about the Samoa Observer’s choice for its “People of the Year” when he launched into the criticism.

The newspaper recognised four Samoans who had prominently opposed the Prime Minister’s year-long push to restructure the judiciary fundamentally and amend the constitution. 

The “Guardians of the Constitution” who featured on the Samoa Observer’s front-page on Thursday were: Supreme Court Justice Vui Clarence Nelson; former Attorney-General Taulapapa Brenda Heather Latu; Law Society President Leiataua Komisi Koria; and the former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mataafa.

The Prime Minister laughed while sarcastically describing the newspaper’s choice as an “act of respect”.

"Why are you asking me?” the Prime Minister responded to an announcer’s question. 

“So what? It could be an act of respect. Kalofae (my sympathies)," he said, chuckling. 

"If that was me in this year’s [Person of the Year], I’d say, ‘No thank you! Thank you so much for this honour, but I don’t want it’.”

The Prime Minister was in 2018 named this newspaper’s “Person of the Year” but on Thursday he said he did not at the time appreciate receiving the honour. 

Tuilaepa said this newspaper should have instead awarded the accolade to the former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, because he regarded the praise as a dubious honour. 

Each year, the Samoa Observer profiles several people for their extraordinary service to Samoa in its final edition of the year, in addition to singling out a person or people for the chief honour.

"There was one year that I was named the 'Man of the Year' and another year I was also given another prize,” Tuilaepa said. 

“But that year when I was named the man of the year while Tuiatua placed second, I thought they should have given the honours to Tui Atua”.  

In 2018, Tui Atua was also named as one of the “People of the Year”. Aside from the preeminent honour, there is not a ranking to those whose work is acknowledged in the newspaper’s final edition. 

"They should have given Tui Atua the honours because I don’t want any honours from them,” the Prime Minister said. 

"If any honours or respect are given to you from the Observer, this is the only newspaper that we have to be very careful of."

The Prime Minister also said the Samoa Observer had the effect of making its employees “stupid” and pushing them to the brink of insanity. 

The Prime Minister made special reference to a former employee of the Samoa Observer who later joined the Government-newspaper, Savali. 

"There are many bright and good people of our country that have gone there [to the Samoa Observer newsroom] and, in the end, they were so close to losing their minds," he said

"There was this old man I remember. 

“He was very good and he is very clever, and the [Samoa] Observer had depended on him, it was Tupuola. He had very good English and Samoan as well.

"When he came, I told him to go look after the Savali newspaper, and I had asked him why he left the Samoa Observer when he had a really good job there because he was like a boss. 

"He said: ‘Oh, that newspaper and the management; people who work there will end up being very stupid when they leave because everything that is good is always bad to this newspaper'." 

The Prime Minister also suggested that the Samoa Observer should cease writing stories about Samoan affairs and instead focus on overseas news. 

He queried why editors at the newspaper had been brought in from overseas when there were several Samoans who were capable of filling the roles. 

"I see that they have brought someone from Papua New Guinea and a palagi (foreigner) when there are a lot of Samoans there,” Tuilaepa said. 

“I just don’t understand these kinds of people who are running this newspaper.”

The Prime Minister has a long history of levelling insults at this newspaper and its staff.  

He has previously said the newspaper was run by “idiots and fools”; described a reporter as “fat”; and suggested that its editorial board could benefit from instruction from Year 12 students, among many more disparaging remarks. 

In October, though, the Prime Minister revealed he was a regular reader of the newspaper but often “throws it away to save [his] brain” when encountering an article he dislikes.

Asked about another recent diatribe against the newspaper for looking “thin” and lacking “intelligent” reporters, the Prime Minister struck a cheery, joking tone. 

“I was pulling your leg all the time,” he said with a hearty laugh. 

But the Prime Minister, whose Press Secretary often declines to answer questions from this newspaper, accused the Observer of including fake comments in news stories that seek to “ridicule” his administration and its officials.

“Your newspaper, it should be the best but there is a trend with you,” said Tuilaepa. 

“The thing [report] will come but you always add in comments to ruin what we are doing. That is why I haven’t answered at times.

When pressed to cite an example Tuilaepa recalled “a year” when he was interviewed by an Observer reporter about a past U.S. President who took office “after [Bill] Clinton.” 

When the story was published, he claimed the headline was incorrect. 

The Prime Minister said he made reference to George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States of America but this was mixed up with a reference to the late President’s son, George Walker Bush, the 43rd occupant of the White House.

“That kind of thing – there is nothing bad [happening] but the headline that comes [alongside] it really casts a bad reflection,” he said. 

“I like your newspaper but if I see something, an article that I don’t like, I don’t read it, I throw it away to save my brain.”

The Prime Minister’s reforms to the judicial branch passed into law on 15 December.

Only four votes were cast against the Judicature Bill 2020, Lands and Titles Bill 2020, and the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020.

But the bills’ effects on the rule of law and democracy in Samoa have been the subject of criticism from local legal experts and are expected to have their constitutional validity tested in a court challenge. 

Numerous international critics also criticised aspects of the bill such as enhancing the Prime Minister’s power to determine the composition of courts. They included the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s Special Rapporteur on the independence of Judges and Lawyers and former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby.

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