There was “no need for consultations” with the media prior to the passage of the Criminal Libel Act.
So says Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi when he was asked for a comment as to why there was no consultation before the passage of the Act.
Last week, the Pacific Freedom Forum (P.F.F.) criticised the government for reviving the Criminal Libel law without consulting the key stakeholders.
The Criminal Libel has been reintroduced as part of a government-led hunt for online bloggers using anonymous names such as “Ole Palemia” to attack senior government officials and members of the public.
In a statement, veteran Samoan Journalist and P.F.F. Chair, Monica Miller, says there was a lack of consultation prior to the Bill being introduced in Parliament and passed as law.
“Lack of consultation before the Bill was pushed through Parliament is good reason to consult more widely now,” Miller is quoted as saying in a statement issued by P.F.F.
According to her, consultations should include a wide range of representatives from across society.
But Tuilaepa said there was no need.
“What consultations? This is not a new law,” he responded. “We just re-introduced it back into law.”
Tuilaepa said the consultation period is over. He pointed to a number of consultations before the Media Council was established.
The Prime Minister then pointed out that so far, no one from the Media Council has come to see him about the Criminal Libel.
It was not possible to get a comment from the Media Council.
But Lecturer for the Media School of Journalism at the N.U.S Misa Vicky Lepou, has added her voice to the list of disappointed media officials over the government’s decision.
She is especially sad to see the reintroduction of the Act, given the amount of years where the media had been lobbying for it to be removed.
Responding to questions from the Samoa Observer, Misa noted that a lot has been said publically about the issue. She believes there should have been a consultation.
“It could have been better consulted if the right advice was given,” she said.
“Law and ethics are completely two different concepts and whether there were legal implications involved, whether the law should be reintroduced in the face of the justice system, the media and stakeholders should have been consulted or the least, the Council and the Executive to lead the facilitation of such discourse."
“Filing lawsuits are costly and the approved passage can only mean that media consumers/public will no longer accept an apology or a retraction, but clear their good name/reputation at the expense of the law and media organisations."
“We are not talking about individual journalists being sued but the whole news/programme production."
“How much can we do to reverse what has been done will take a lot of work and show proof of professionalism by all means.”
According to Misa, the Media Council was set up with a Code of Practice to be widely implemented and monitored.
“This wasn’t about an individual organisation, but with a focus on addressing industry-specific problems and its relations with the public."
“The code defines the service ideal, referring to the public’s right to information, democracy, freedom of expression and public responsibility thereby positioning journalist’s responsibilities to the wider community."
“It also refers to journalistic ideals of pursuing truth, honesty, fairness, independence and respect for rights of others and public access to media."
“A range of factors can be taken into account in determining the ‘reasonable likelihood’ of harm including in some circumstances, matters of public interest."
“Its application (exemptions) adds a layer of complexity to a simple process of accessing government documents."
“Other than lawsuits, media stakeholders must continue to create in house trainings other than formal training to ensure that any publication/broadcast is thoroughly checked and verified by management before release.”
She points out the concept of reputation needs to be demarcated as the concerns would fall on the expense of media organisations.
“We are looking at conflicting rights here at the same time. The right to privacy is indeed a fundamental right."
“The right of an individual to protect his or her good name must be balanced against the public interest in freedom of speech which is also a fundamental right.”
Misa says it will not hurt to continue this conversation in the near future and the talk about a freedom of information law should start now.
“Access to documents is subject to a range of exemptions and these should also be spelt out in the same Act."
“The exemptions must take into account the nature (or quality) of information held by governments."
“It relates generally into the responsibilities and operations of government and to third party information held by agencies (such as personal and/or commercially sensitive information)."
“Information disclosure though may have adverse effects and where the term ‘public’ is due should be given discourse and must be absolute. Some documents are deemed to be so sensitive that their disclosure has consequences.”
She said the N.U.S. Media School offered appropriate training standards and observing basics of journalism.
“The programme is in the progress of completing preparations for the proposed Bachelor’s degree."
“Long term plans also include qualified and experienced journalists to continue on to higher education such as postgraduate and Masters programmes in relation to media and development studies.”