Long live press freedom!

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Today is World Press Freedom day.  All around the world, the media and people who believe in the importance of such a fundamental principle in democracy and our lives will take a moment to pause and reflect on the importance of the day.

World Press Freedom Day by the way was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of U.N.E.S.C.O’s General Conference. It is an opportunity to:

• celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;

• assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;

• defend the media from attacks on their independence;

• and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The global theme for this year’s celebration is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” According to the United Nations, the theme highlights the importance of “an enabling legal environment for press freedom,” giving “special attention to the role of an independent judiciary in ensuring legal guarantees for press freedom and the prosecution of crimes against journalists.”

Further, it addresses the role of the media in “sustainable development, especially during elections - as a watchdog fostering transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

“The theme also aims to explore legislative gaps with regard to freedom of expression and information online, and the risks of regulating online speech.”

Which brings us to the local commemoration of World Press Freedom Day today. Up there at Hotel Insel Fehrmarn, the local media will focus on the challenges faced by the industry with the onset of internet technology. This is being done through a National Forum on Freedom of Expression Online organised by U.N.E.S.C.O. and the Journalists Association of (Western) Samoa (J.A.W.S.).

“We intend to bring together several stakeholders to discuss the above theme and develop strategies to address issues as a result of Social Media,” said J.A.W.S. President, Rudy Bartley. 

He added that the open nature of the internet is a benefit to freedom of expression and access to information, but it does have challenges.

 “The negative side of internet is the openness to transmit hate speech, deliberate defamation under the guise of freedom of speech, sharing and leaking personal information and the spread of fake news.

 “These risks cannot be effectively monitored if there is the lack of and under-resourcing of self-regulatory systems by internet intermediaries or other stakeholders with a role to monitor online content. Elsewhere, it has fueled the growth of legislation and regulation imposing restrictions on freedom of the press.”

Well you don’t need to look further than what is happening in Samoa today. The Government recently brought back the Criminal Libel Law as part of a bid to find the “gutless” and “faceless ghost writers” who have been writing some pretty nasty stuff about the Government and public figures.

Now what do we make of this? 

Let me say this on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, freedom of expression is one thing, abusing people and making unfounded allegations under the guise of freedom of expression, especially when the writer is a faceless ghost, is something else. 

Let’s not confuse the two please. They are worlds apart and they must never be muddled together. Whereas freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, which allows people to speak their mind freely and access information so they can hold the powers that be to account, the latter is damaging and must never be tolerated. 

We say this because it destroys innocent people, families, communities, countries and eventually makes a mockery of the very freedom our forebears shed their blood and tears over so we can live and enjoy such fantastic freedom today.

Today, we want to say that without free speech and a right to believe and express an opinion, democracy will wither and die. It’s that simple.

That said, we also accept that freedom comes with boundaries and responsibility. It must always be governed by rules and laws which protect and guard people who are vulnerable to being hurt and abused by that very freedom.

Sad to say, some of what we have witnessed online in Samoa today is nothing but malicious and extremely vengeful. 

We don’t need to tell you anymore about the Government-driven manhunt for certain online bloggers in Samoa today. While it has become the butt of jokes and a topic of many conversations around ava bowls, from our standpoint, it’s an eye opener in terms of just how little we know about the power of the internet. 

The irony is that here we have a government espousing the need to have faster internet connection with multiple benefits, and yet on the other hand it is slowly finding out just how much of a monster it is. It was only recently that Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi threatened to block off Facebook in Samoa altogether.

This Government is powerful enough to be able to do that. But will it solve the problem of abuse and misuse of the internet and freedom of expression? 

The answer is no. The abusers will simply move on to another way of continuing what they have been doing. This is the reality of today. If not Facebook, there are Twitter accounts, Instagram and many other social networks. 

Now getting back to freedom of expression and the traditional media, the basic guide to free speech is that if you have an opinion – especially one where you are accusing someone else – you should be brave enough to put your face there and your name. 

That’s what responsible people do. And this is what this newspaper encourages. In fact it is what we do through the editorial section of your newspaper every day of the week. We know some people agree with us, some don’t agree and some people will absolutely hate us for it. 

But that is the beauty of freedom of different views and opinions. It allows us to agree and disagree on different topics. Looking at the world today and its problems, there is no one size fits all kind of solution. There are different solutions depending on who, where and the circumstances. 

The same goes for the court of public opinion. It’s the variety and the quality of different opinions that enriches and enhances lives. It allows us to grow as a people, a nation and it helps us become better at whatever we do.

Think about it this way. By expressing your constructive opinion, you are contributing to your country’s gradual development. Believe it or not, your views help shape that development because they are widely read by the people who matter. They are read by people on the streets, people in different offices and even the most powerful in the land.

Today, we want to say your opinions help preserve that freedom. Your opinions help strengthen democracy. Your views are the lifeblood of free Samoa. 

And lastly, if you feel really strongly about an issue, we encourage you to put your name to your opinion or letter. 

You might be hated, criticised and get the odd glance from here and there but if you stand for the truth, in the end when what you say comes to pass, they will respect you. 

Trust me, we know. 

That’s what freedom of expression is all about.

Long live press freedom in the world and Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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