Samoa's Only Independent Paper Under Attack
Defamation Suits Threaten to CloseSamoa Observer
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The Honorable Tofilau Eti Alesana
Prime Minister
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Private Bag L1861
Apia, Independent State of Samoa

 

Join CPJ's Protest of This Attack.
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011-685-21339

 

15 July 1998

 

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by an ongoing legal campaign against the Samoa Observer that now threatens to put the country's only independent daily newspaper out of business.

On July 6, the Samoan Supreme Court found the Samoa Observer guilty of civil defamation against Your Excellency, assessing damages at 50,000 tala (approximately US$16,000). The Observer's editor and publisher, Savea Sano Malifa, has told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that he may have to sell the newspaper in order to pay mounting legal debts. Malifa says that his lawyers fees already total nearly 230,000 tala (about US$76,000), and the paper still faces a separate charge of criminal defamation due to be heard in court on July 27.

"It's getting too much. I cannot keep going this way," Savea said to AFP. "It is costing us a lot of money and we cannot afford it&emdash;the headaches, the frustrations, and the disappointments."

The decision taken by your government on May 15 to make public funds available to finance defamation suits by high-ranking public officials has created an atmosphere that seems hostile to the development of a free press. As Faumina Lance Polu, the president of the Journalists Association of Western Samoa, said when this new policy was announced, "It is another clamp-down on the freedom of information and expression in Samoa. . . . Most would opt not to make an attempt to cover a sensitive story."

The Samoa Observer warned that with government officials free to take cases to court at no personal cost, the news media would be effectively deterred from investigating allegations of corruption. While CPJ understands that the Observer has been a particularly trenchant voice in the country, we believe that all journalists should be free to publish stories that might be controversial and may even offend those in power.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ is concerned that there seems to be a growing tendency in Samoa to silence dissenting voices and punish critical speech. According to the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), government ministers are considering withdrawing the license of your country's only independent radio station, Radio Polynesia, even as the remaining radio and television stations are almost completely state-controlled.

In 1997, CPJ noted Your Excellency's efforts to revoke the Samoa Observer's business license for "stirring up trouble." And, while the government has made it easier for political figures to bring defamation cases against the media, journalists involved in libel actions are not only required to bear the high costs of litigation, but to reveal their sources.

CPJ urges your government to reconsider its present course of action, remembering that freedom of speech is guaranteed by your constitution precisely because it so important to the health of a nation, and we respectfully ask that you drop all charges against the Samoa Observer in light of the fact that the survival of this newspaper is vital to the public interest in Samoa.

Thank you for your attention. We await your response.

 

Yours Sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper

Executive Director