Attorney General statements "petty" and "catty": Media Freedom Watchdog

The regional media watchdog the Pacific Freedom Forum (P.F.F.) has said the Attorney General’s statements about the Samoa Observer are petty, catty and not befitting of her office.

P.F.F. Coordinator and freelance journalist Leanne Jorari said Attorney General Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale’s outburst against this newspaper's reports and reporting are concerning signs for media freedom in Samoa. 

Over the weekend, Savalenoa said she intends to have the Samoa Observer and her own office investigated after consulting with the Police and Public Service Commission, and accused this newspaper of "hacking" email systems to illegally obtain information. 

Her statements came after a series of articles were printed detailing two Government legal cases taken on by her former firm, now solely run by her husband, which raised questions about potential perceptions of a conflict of interest and how the A.G.’s office was managing those. 

In two letters to the Samoa Observer distributed widely by the Government Press Secretariat, Savalenoa accuses this newspaper of hacking, sensationalism, and reporting inaccurately.

“While the reporting may be questionable, at least you are consistent with the inaccurate and sensationalized reporting,” she wrote in one of the two letters.

“The lack of attention to detail demonstrates the calibre of Samoa Observer’s source, and their intentions; and Samoa Observer’s inability to vet not only their sources but their motives.”

Ms. Jorari said she has never experienced, or heard of anyone experiencing anything like this in her career.

“I haven’t seen such blatant disrespect for a journalist like that, […] she is in a public office that is open to scrutiny, and if you can’t accept scrutiny what really does that make you?”

She said she has not seen public officials withhold information in this way either, suggesting the entire issue could have been resolved in a five-minute interview.

Instead, Savalenoa waited weeks after being initially approached for a comment to release her statement addressing some of the questions, and took care to attack the newspaper.

“If Samoa Observer had properly read the retainer agreement- that it unlawfully obtained from our  Office- rather than cutting and pasting it in the paper, they would have discovered that there are 3 parties to the retainer agreement,” Savalenoa and Assistant Attorney General Galumalemana Loretta Teueli said, referring to one of the articles.

“Such ill-informed assessment is very calculated and lean towards character assignation of the Attorney General.”

Journalists should not be attacked in this way, Ms. Jorari continued.

“There shouldn’t be any undermining of the character of the journalists or the reputation of the newspaper. That was completely uncalled for and it’s quite, for lack of a better word, petty.

“The way I personally see it, and not speaking for my co-chairs, is that I feel like they would hope this puts a muzzle on the journalists.”

She said she believes the Attorney General is looking to instil fear in journalists and use her position in Government to “muzzle” this newspaper.

“I feel like they want to engage that fear from the journalists to not overstep the line. So it is concerning because it feels like she will use her position of power and her friends in high places to put that muzzle on journalists in the Samoa Observer.”

But the issues highlight the lack of legal protection for journalists and whistle-blowers, Ms. Jorari said. In her own country Papua New Guinea, the Whistle Blowers Bill was passed in February last year and is meant to protect public servants who see corruption in public office.  

“We all know that the freedom of the press is really important in a democracy,” she said. “Without that law protecting journalists or their right to report freely, situations like this [happen].

“I feel the police investigation, if [Savalenoa] wants to go ahead with that, I feel it is within her rights; however it’s a really sticky situation.

“The Samoa Observer does have the mandate and the right to report about things that they see.”

The Government has previously shown it is more likely to make it harder rather than easier for public servants to expose corruption by releasing information to journalists.

In 2019, it proposed to amend the Crimes Act to include public servants leaking information to a third party, and sought to make them liable, with punishment of seven years in prison.

At the time, Journalists Association of Samoa President Rudy Bartley said instead of criminalising public servants, the Government should make information more accessible. 

“With the F.O.I. (freedom of information) government agencies will be bound by law to release such information for the greater good and national interest,” he said. 

Nearly a year ago, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the United Nations announced they were working on such a law. 

“Access to Information is a key enabler of development,” U.N.E.S.C.O. Pacific Director Nisha said. “We live in a fast changing world where lack of information or knowledge may contribute to marginalisation.” 

The Pacific Freedom Forum monitors threats to press freedom and journalists in the region, and seeks to support reporters where their rights are threatened.

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