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Samoa's free speech stagnation cause for concern

We must, from the outset, express our caution about the increasing number of studies that seek to rank the world’s nations, as if they were football teams, on measures such as their commitments to democracy or freedom. 

Recently there has been a proliferation of think tanks and institutes devoted to the imperfect science of ranking nations according to their protection of democracy, free speech and human rights and various other worthy causes.

We have, of course, the Economist’s annual Democracy Index, Freedom House’s Freedom Index and several others from respected think tanks such as the Cato Institute and even the great American newspaper the Wall Street Journal.

No one is necessarily better than the other.

Sometimes these rankings say more about the priority that compilers of these studies place on one particular aspect of the definition, say, of democracy or a free press. That often says as much about the ideologies of the groups producing them as the situation on the ground.

And in smaller countries such as our own, where policy developments rarely come to the centre of world attention, nuanced changes are apt to be overlooked. 

But the release this week of an annual study at the University of Georgia’s Human Rights Measurement Initiative (H.R.M.I.), stands out among these many league tables and it gives us pause for thought about its findings on freedom of speech in Samoa.

The methods for its rankings stand out. Rather than those made by international think tank experts, scanning newspaper headlines in offices in New York and London, are informed by up to five independently chosen assessors in each country. 

A story in Tuesday's Samoa Observer (“Samoa scores poorly on rights to opinion, expression”) revealed the study had made consistently disappointing findings about the state of the right to freedom of expression in this nation. 

For the third straight year, Samoans’ right to opinion and expression has been ranked poorly. 

For 2018, 2019 and now 2020 we have received a score that has placed us squarely in the ‘bad’ range, rising only within the survey’s margin of error in that time from 5 to 5.1 out of 10. 

It is difficult to imagine a rise in score this year.

In particular, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi's response to the recent controversy over the broadcasting of the Samoan Independent Seventh Day Adventist Church’s sermon attacking other religions gives us pause for concern.

The Prime Minister rightly condemned those sermons as offensive. They should not have been broadcast and responsible media ownership involves editing out tasteless material and that which is likely to give gratuitous offence.

Even though the right to freedom of speech in this country is guaranteed in the constitution we as media proprietors are not obliged to publish everything that is sought to be published in our outlet. 

Both submitted materials and advertisements submitted on commercial terms are screened heavily for issues such as defamation, inaccuracy and simple tastefulness.

A right to free speech is not the same as the right to use a media platform to say whatever one pleases. And TV1 did not meet this standard and rightly apologised for failing in its obligations to exercise its responsibility to editorial control.

But they must not be used as reason for tighter control or regulation on free speech in Samoa. 

The Prime Minister’s response to the issue gave us concern that it might be.

"It’s worse than murder,” the Prime Minister said about the remarks.

“I can assure you Mr. Speaker and Members of Parliament that there is no absolute right to freedom of expression.”

The Prime Minister tasked the Attorney-General’s Office to lead a “liberal and criminal” probe into the remarks.

These remarks may well have offended the vast majority of Samoa’s denominations. They may be objectively offensive.

The risk is that these sermons, as examples of speech most people can agree is objectionable, will be used as a beachhead on which further restrictions on free expression will be built. 

The fact that we are yet to see progress in Samoa’s disappointing scores on free speech in recent years alone is worrying

But the possibility of seeing our constitutional right to free expression further watered down or subject to new caveats or laws is unacceptable. 

That we are, the H.M.R.I. report found, about average for the Pacific region on the metric of freedom to express an opinion gives us little comfort.

Not when we consider the iron grip that some Pacific governments have exercised over media outlets in their countries. 

The Prime Minister says that journalists in Samoa should be “jumping for joy” at their freedom to practise their craft.

We took that mark with due scepticism when it was first made by the Prime Minister last year. 

But in the current climate, simply not placing any further restrictions on free expression may well be cause enough for us to remain happy.


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