Tuilaepa says the law is to fight 'ghost writers' and 'troublemakers'
Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi (Photo courtesy of Samoa Planet)
In Washington, D.C., President Donald J. Trump is howling for the courts to block publication of a new book suggesting that he's mentally incompetent and incapable of handling his job. In Apia, Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is delighted with Parliament's decision to revive a criminal speech law originally created in 1961.
Media in the region fear that this would allow exactly the kind of outcome that Trump is unlikely to achieve, given the U.S. First Amendment guarantees enshrined in the Constitution by founding fathers who were certainly viewed as "troublemakers" and worse by their British colonial masters.
The Pacific Freedom Forum, a media organization, is leading the charge against the law, saying that there was no consultation with the media or individuals exercising political speech, a much larger group than in the past.
Describing the revived libel law as "a colonial-era law, from half a century ago," PFF Chair Monica Miller, speaking from American Samoa, says the consultations should include a wide range of representatives from across society.
Old and new media should be represented at consultations, including bloggers and other social media users such as on Facebook, as well as newspaper, radio, television audiences, and all voices supporting freedom of expression.
“Government and all media users need to sit at the same table to work out how the new laws fit with existing institutions, including the courts and the Samoa Media Council.”
Concerns about anonymous bloggers should not override the right of citizens to speak freely, without fear of being jailed, says Miller.
But she also says media need to engage with other institutions on agreed ways to avoid potential threats to media and other freedoms, such as with the Attorney General’s office and the Samoa Law Commission.
Speaking from Papua New Guinea, PFF co-Chair Alexander Rheeney says Pacific people already have the right to seek civil court action on alleged libel.
Returning libel to criminal courts means Samoa is stepping back from its regional leadership role in good governance, says Rheeney.
“We have already seen examples around the region of governments using millions in tax dollars to fund civil action against news media," he says.
“Samoa media users, new and old, now risk jail time and criminal fines despite constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech.”
Outside of the constitution, Samoa is also a member of the United Nations, where article 19 of the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights also guarantees freedom of expression, and access to information.
Speaking from Palau, fellow PFF co-Chair Bernadette Carreon says government would have been better off introducing freedom of information laws, not turning journalism into a crime again.
“We’re stuck with it now, so consultations need to set our clear policy for criminal libel action, especially from within government,” she says.
PFF is calling for complainants to be encouraged to explore existing procedures, such as writing an official complaint to media outlets, or to the Samoa Media Council, before seeking arrests under criminal media laws.