Samoa could lose press freedom status

Samoa has maintained its 22nd placing in the recently released 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

However, Paris-based international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders has warned that the country is in danger of losing its status as a "regional press freedom model" if the Government does not abolish the Criminal Libel law.

Press freedom in Samoa last year was also ranked 22nd out of 180 countries and territories, but Reporters Without Borders says the Government promoted Criminal Libel law continues to be a major hurdle in enabling Samoans to fully enjoy the benefits of press freedom.

The Samoa Observer and Talamua Media were specifically mentioned in the annual assessment.

"Despite the liveliness of media groups such as Talamua Media and the Samoa Observer group, this Pacific archipelago is in the process of losing its status as a regional press freedom model. 

"A law criminalizing defamation was repealed in 2013, raising hopes that were dashed in December 2017 when Parliament restored the law under pressure from Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, giving him license to attack journalists who dared to criticize members of his Government. 

"A few months later, in early 2018, the Prime Minister warned Samoan media outlets not to “play with fire” by being too critical in their reporting or else his government would censor their websites. 

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In response to these repeated threats, the Samoa Alliance of Media Practitioners for Development (SAMPOD) urged the media to reaffirm the rights of Samoans to a pluralist, free and independent media as an essential condition for democracy," stated the report by Reporters Without Borders.

The Journalist Association of (Western) Samoa (JAWS) president, Rudy Bartley, told this newspaper that the Government's reintroduction of the Criminal Libel law is a major concern. 

"This law is a form of media censorship and is a hindrance to freedom of information. Freedom of information is essential in any democracy and the Criminal Libel Law is a threat to the work of the media and people's freedom of expression. 

"In addition, the fall of ranking may also be linked to other recent issues impacting on media freedom in Samoa. Examples: difficulty of media accessing up-to-date information from government officials, detaining of journalists by police while doing their jobs, and unfair restrictions of local private media in coverage of official government events (official visits and international conferences hosted by Government)," he said.

Mr. Bartley said a lot of work needs to be done in Samoa, especially around developing the media's relationship with the Government and its agencies. 

And while Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi should be commended for allocating time for his weekly media briefings, the JAWS president said other Government agencies should follow the PM's lead and provide up-to-date information when requested by the media.

"In doing so, we need to develop dialogue with Government agencies to find out how to work together in order to do our respective jobs (media and Government) more effectively and in turn serve the public better. But that is our challenge - trying to find some practical "solutions" to address these issues in-order for the media to do the work to the best of its ability without fear or influence. 

"JAWS is dedicated to assisting the media in advocating for media freedom and setting professional standards. We have started with publishing a Media Code of Practise booklet for all media and soon to start, workshops to develop skills and expertise for local media practitioners," Mr Bartley added.

He said the association is grateful for the assistance of the IPDC (UNESCO), PACMAS (Australia) and the US Embassy in developing and supporting the work of the media and addressing issues of concern through capacity building and training.

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