AUDIO: Observer editor brands Samoa as ‘insidious dictatorship’ after PM attack
Monday, August 12, 2013
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AUCKLAND (Pacific Media Watch): The editor of the Samoa Observer says media in the country need to “do what they’re supposed to do - and that is to be watchdogs of the government, not lapdogs”.
In an interview with Pacific Media Watch, Samoa Observer editor Mata’afa Keni Lesa made a scathing criticism of the country’s Prime Minister, Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi, saying the current government had a negative impact on media freedom in Samoa.
Mata'afa called the current conditions in Samoa “an insidious dictatorship”, and he said it was “basically a one-party state, where the Prime Minister rules above all”.
“In this country today, I’m telling you now, there is a real culture of fear among our people, including the public service. They are so afraid to speak up. They are so afraid of this government. They are so afraid of this Prime Minister,” Mata'afa said.
The editor's criticisms came after the Prime Minister recently stated in an interview with Radio Australia that the opposition in Samoa had been “led astray by various subjective comments from the editor of the [Samoa] Observer”.
The creation of a controversial media council in Samoa is the background to the feisty exchanges between the Prime Minister and the editor.
Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi denied the government had interfered in the creation of the media council.
Mata'afa, however, said people could “do the maths”, and referred to a recent letter from the Attorney-General which stated the government had instructed the Attorney-General to establish a media council.
The Samoa Observer editor said a media council could potentially be detrimental to media in Samoa.
“Our fear at this stage is that this media council will become another government body, designed to really shut down the media.”
The Prime Minister denied that the government would have anything to do with the media council, claiming it would be an independent body.
He also said there was an “urgent need” to create a media council due to “a lot of erroneous reporting” and “apologies after apologies after apologies made by the Observer”.
“The idea that there are 'apologies after apologies after apologies' is wrong,” Mata'afa said in the interview where he was asked to comment on the Prime Minister's characteristics of him in the recent Radio Australia interview.
“Put it this way: We are a daily newspaper, we run 365 papers a year. If a lot of apologies mean two or three apologies a year, I’m not sure…again, you decide for yourself.”
Instead of trying to establish a media council, Mata'afa said the government should be concerned about corruption among state officials.
“What we’re saying is, look, let’s have the government regulate their corruption. Let’s have the government regulate themselves. ...Because they are abusing money from me, from the people of this country so much, and yet here they are trying to control the media, when they really should look into what they’re doing,” the editor said.
Mata'afa objected to the notion of Samoa being a “free media environment”.
In the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Samoa was ranked 48th, with media freedom in the country being described as “satisfactory” by the NGO.
New Zealand at 8th, Australia at 26th and Papua New Guinea at 41st were the only countries in Oceania ranked above Samoa.
“The most distressing part for me, is that it’s a very controlled media environment. Our democracy, unfortunately, is referred to as the model democracy in the Pacific. Well, I can tell you that it’s far from it…It’s very difficult to work here, because people have the idea that we’re free, but we’re not.”
Listen to the full interview - transcript below:
Daniel Drageset (DD), contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch: Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi recently said that the government does not interfere with the proposed media council. He also attacked your newspaper, and you in particular, by saying that the “opposition has been led astray by various subjective comments from the editor of the [Samoa] Observer”. What is your response to this, Mata’afa?
Mata’afa Keni Lesa (MKL), editor of the Samoa Observer: Well, let’s talk about the word ‘interfere’ for example, since the Prime Minister is saying the government doesn’t interfere. I’ve got a letter from the Attorney-General, and as a matter of fact every other media organisation in Samoa has a letter from the Attorney-General, saying that the government, these are the words and I quote “has instructed” end quote media to draft the bill for the legislation of the media council.
So, I mean, look, I’m sure you or your listeners or your readers are very smart people, you can do the maths. Now, in terms of the Prime Minister’s comments about us leading the opposition on, well, you know, the opposition are their own, we’re not the opposition. And the Prime Minister has been attacking us all over this media council.
The opposition to the media council by the way is very clear. In the beginning we said: "Look, the government can do two things. We’ll be very happy to have a media council in Samoa; one is to remove the Criminal Libel Act, and second is to remove an act called the Printers and Publishers Act. Up until now, they have only moved towards the Criminal Libel Act. They have not done anything to the Printers and Publishers Act. And as long as that remains, we do not want a media council.
DD: The Prime Minister also said that there has been a lot of erroneous reporting and “apologies after apologies after apologies” made by the [Samoa] Observer, and he said that “these misprintings have been deliberate to sell the newspaper”. What is your response to that?
MKL: Well, Daniel, look. You are a news media man. In the life of a daily newspaper, we are bound to make mistakes. The idea that there are “apologies after apologies after apologies” is wrong. Put it this way: we are a daily newspaper, we run 365 papers a year. If a lot of apologies mean two or three apologies a year, I’m not sure…again, you decide for yourself.
Now, in the life of newspapers we are bound to make mistakes. In this newspaper, when we make a mistake we are quick to be accountable, we are quick to say we’re sorry, because that’s what accountability is about. That’s what transparency is about. And that’s what any newspaper would do. It’s not just the Samoa Observer that apologises by the way. TV stations everywhere around the world apologise. Newspapers all over the world apologise, and really when it’s time to go to court that’s what happens. It’s just part of our job.
DD: How does it feel to be the focal point of attention of the Prime Minister of your country?
MKL: To me personally, look, it’s not something I want. It’s not something I would actually want to engage in, but if it means that we become the voice for all of those people out there who are voiceless, we would be happy to continue. Because in this country today, I’m telling you now, there is a real culture of fear among our people, including the public service. They are so afraid to speak up. They are so afraid of this government. They are so afraid of this Prime Minister. This is why the government and the Prime Minister are designing these laws to come down hard on the Samoa Observer. Because this is the only way people are given an opportunity to speak out.
DD: From what I understand it, your newspaper argues against a media council. Why is that?
MKL: We are against the government having anything to do with the media council. Put it that way. And, like I said in the beginning, we want the government to remove these laws, because in our opinion there are enough laws already to regulate the media in Samoa. Besides, if all else fails, there’s always the court where people who feel that they’ve been wronged can take their grievances. What we’re saying is, look, let’s have the government regulate their corruption. Let’s have the government regulate themselves. Let’s have the government….because they are abusing money from me, from the people of this country so much, and yet here they are trying to control the media, when they really should look into what they’re doing.
DD: There are of course media councils with a healthy media freedom situation. Do you think that a media council in Samoa may potentially be implemented under the right circumstances?
MKL: Oh, absolutely! I mean, there’s no doubt about it! I am in support of that idea given that the government does not have anything to do with the media council. Because look, at the end of the day, we need to develop our media industry. On the other hand, there’s a lot that can be achieved by looking at the standards, looking at training opportunities, looking at ways to lift the standards and performances of local journalists. But our fear at this stage is that this media council will become another government body, designed to really shut down the media.
DD: Last year the Samoan government said that a media council would be created within two years, but now it seems to be established before that. What is the reason for that as you see it, Mata’afa?
MKL: We don’t know what the reason is. But suffice to say, the Attorney-General and the government – I mean the law reform commission – are both government bodies, and they are obviously not talking to each other. But I think that the real reason for that is because they are really trying to control the information that is coming out of Samoa.
Because if you’ve been following the developments in Samoa over the past years, our Prime Minister has been very critical of Fiji, and he’s been very critical of everything [Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe] Bainimarama has done. Now, I can tell you that what this country is heading to is just going to be like Fiji. Because here is the government, it’s accusing Fiji of this and that, and they’re doing the exact same thing in this country.
DD: The Prime Minister also said that it is a big problem that Samoan journalists do not follow their own ethics. Do you agree with that?
MKL: Well, what ethics is he talking about? [Long pause]
DD: You’re asking me that, Mata’afa?
MKL: Yes, absolutely! Maybe you should go back to the Prime Minister and ask him what ethics he is talking about. And let me put this question to the Prime Minister: Is he following his ethics? Is the public service in this country following his ethics? I don’t think so.
DD: So, there is maybe a problem with ethics on all sides in Samoa. Is that what you’re saying?
MKL: Well, listen, until you can identify which kind of ethics you are talking about in terms of media. And especially in the works of this newspaper. Look, we respect our ethics. If there’s one thing the Samoa Observer stands for, it’s about ethics, and that’s what we’re about. So, unless the Prime Minister can say that in Samoa, you know, can name which ethics we’re apparently violating…I don’t agree with that.
DD: Media freedom in Samoa has received quite a bit of attention the last couple of months after various threats against journalists, and now also the possible creation of a media council. What do you see as the most distressing development in Samoa lately concerning media freedom?
MKL: I think it’s the idea that, you know, people think there’s a free media environment in Samoa. The most distressing part for me, is that it’s a very controlled media environment. Our democracy, unfortunately, it’s referred to as the model democracy in the Pacific. Well, I can tell you that it’s far from it. You’ve got basically a one-party state, where the Prime Minister rules above all. It’s very difficult to work here, because people have the idea that we’re free, but we’re not. It’s a more insidious kind of dictatorship.
DD: What do you see as the likely future for media freedom in Samoa?
MKL: I think the only future for media freedom in Samoa is for the media to really come together, because that’s another issue within Samoa at this stage. The Prime Minister has been able to control, and has been able to bring all the other media bodies under him, and these guys will run at whatever he has to say. But from the Observer’s perspective, like I said earlier, this is the only newspaper that really stands up and questions him. And so, I don’t know what the future of the media in Samoa is at this stage.
I think, looking at what’s happening now, it’s a very bleak picture, but I think, look, you need people with integrity, you need people to stand by their principles, and you need people to stand by their convictions, to be able to stand up and say this is wrong. We need to get the media to do what they’re supposed to do, and that is to be watchdogs of the government, not lapdogs of the government.
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