Whistle blowing strengthens Government
Samoa desperately needs laws to protect the morally courageous people who blow the whistle on what they see as corrupt behaviour or failings hidden from the public.
They are motivated by a belief that the Government is responsible to voters and they desire to improve the way in which the country is run.
And yet Samoa continues to clamp down on whistleblowers to the detriment of our democracy.
For decades now, countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States have had in place measures to protect Government employees from reporting on “illegality waste and corruption” from facing punishment.
They are protected from prosecution, demotion, harassment, and a raft of other potential obstacles to telling the truth.
Sadly, over the same time, Samoa has gone backward and our Government and the people it serves are the losers.
In 2019, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi defended a proposed bill that would have Government officials facing prison terms of up to seven years for leaking official documents.
Over the weekend we were given a glimpse of the twisted moral compasses of senior officials working inside a Government that discourages disclosure at every turn.
The Sunday edition of the Samoa Observer revealed Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi asked the Samoa Law Reform Commission if there was precedent for banning Facebook before national elections (“P.M. sought advice on pre-election Facebook bans”).
The commission’s Executive Director, Teleiai Dr. Lalotoa Mulitalo, wrote to the Prime Minister to advise him that there was not.
But Teleiai wrote encouragingly to the Prime Minister to remind him of the many options at his disposal to crack down on expression on social media that fell short of a full-blown ban.
“In the absence of such laws in these countries, again, we have the Prohibiting the Sharing of Violent Material Bill which was prepared following the Christchurch terrorist attack incident,” she wrote.
“This may be the starting point of regulating social media platforms, and any other body in control of materials being shared via social media platforms.”
After the Samoa Observer obtained material from the office of the Attorney-General it again invoked the threat of jail time and suggested that only through “hacking” could the material have left its office doors.
“Our Office will be consulting the Police Commissioner and the Public Service Commission regarding opening a full investigation into how confidential documents from this Office have made their way to the Samoa Observer,” the Saturday statement said.
The press release went on to note that anyone found to have broken their oath of confidentiality could face up to two years’ imprisonment.
So why is it that the world’s most successful democracies have put measures in place to encourage people to disclose wrongdoing and Samoa wants to do the opposite?
The answer is the Government’s desire to totally control the flow of information to the public, an ethic reflected in the statements of its top legal advisors.
Governments, like any large organisations, are far from perfect; nor should we expect them to be so.
But the only way to improve the standard of governance in this country is to own up to its shortcomings and vowing to take action that ensures bad behaviour will not happen again.
This is precisely why a culture of whistleblowing improves the operation of Governments.
Democratically elected Governments across the world have long since calculated that the temporary embarrassment of admitting to wrongdoing is less important than advancing the country's long-term interest.
As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
There are only a few grey areas where the leaking of Government documents can be harmful and they almost always relate to disclosing matters of national security.
But the issues that have provoked the Government’s recent invocation of prison terms could not be further from that domain. The Prime Minister’s push to criminalise leaks followed the publication of a financial report by the Samoa Observer showing the national carrier was running at a loss. The Attorney-General’s ongoing spat with this newspaper has been incited by our obtaining of documents relating to her husband’s firm winning a contract to conduct a review. Wikileaks, this is not.
The Government already occupies much of Samoa’s media landscape, including the Savali and Radio 2AP.
The Prime Minister takes advantage of the opportunity these provide to communicate directly to the public with favourable reports on governance.
Increasingly, Tuilaepa has engaged in live streaming of such monologues on social media, again bypassing the scrutiny of traditional media.
Speaking to this newspaper on Tuesday the former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mataafa, called for whistleblower protection laws as she warned of the
dangers to democracy of having a sole narrative imposed on politics.
“For instance, Parliament which is one area where you can get information, [but] you don’t have open debate at all now. It’s all internal and behind closed doors. There are no questions and answers in Parliament,” she said.
“It’s all about the public interest, right?”
Indeed it is.
Documents slipped under the door of the Samoa Observer, as they have done for decades, invariably form the basis of articles that are in the public interest. Whistleblowers do not risk such consequences for trivial matters; they seek to expose issues such as corruption and mismanagement.
In many ways, leaks serve as a pressure valve for those working for Governments that are free from scrutiny from the press and enjoy a dominant position in parliament.
The Prime Minister refuses to take questions from Samoa Observer reporters at his press conferences. Recently the Director-General of the health Ministry, Leauasa Dr. Take Naseri, sought to exclude a non-Samoan speaking journalist from this newspaper from questioning him.
People working within Ministries who believe that the truth should win out are undertaking a kind of resistance to this repressive attitude.
After all, the Government is only in power because of the mandate provided by Samoan voters. They deserve transparency for providing this authority.
It takes bravery for a politician to stand before the public or the media, and admit to uncomfortable truths. But for our democracy to progress, it is necessary.