Attacks on the Press 1999: Samoa

After years of struggling under the autocratic leadership of former Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana, who resigned in November 1998, journalists in Samoa are beginning to breathe a little easier. “There’s been a bit of a renaissance here, as far as the media’s concerned,” said Savea Sano Malifa, publisher of the daily Samoa Observer. Tofilau’s successor, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, promised to improve government transparency in the wake of a high-profile murder trial that has exposed corruption and criminality in Samoa’s politics, and there is greater diversity among the local media than ever before.

The Samoa Observer had been a favorite target of the old regime, and the paper was nearly bankrupted by a series of costly lawsuits brought by the former prime minister in response to its coverage of government corruption. Tofilau had filed charges against Malifa and Fuimaono Fereti Tupua, the paper’s former Samoan-language editor, for criminal libel in 1997, based on the paper’s publication of a letter to the editor that featured several unflattering descriptions of him. Tofilau died in March 1999, and on August 12, the Supreme Court ordered a “permanent stay” on the case.

Nevertheless, a pair of lawsuits brought against the Samoa Observer by the state-owned Polynesian Airlines demonstrated that significant challenges remain. In February, the Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction to block the Observer from running a story involving the possible misuse of government money. In March, Polynesian Airlines petitioned the court to jail Malifa and Aumuagaolo Ropeti Ale, an editor at the paper, on contempt charges. Criminal libel and defamation laws remain on the books, and government officials in Samoa are still permitted to spend public funds on civil suits against the press.

February 16

At the request of the state-owned Polynesian Airlines, Samoa’s Supreme Court blocked distribution of the February 16 edition of the Samoa Observer by serving a temporary injunction against the paper.

Polynesian Airlines had sought the injunction to block news that the company was spending large sums of money to provide cash advances and allowances for senior staff. The newspaper had apparently received a leaked document detailing these expenses. The ruling found that “the interim order sought is necessary to prevent irreparable damage to the airline,” according to the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA).

In a February 18 protest letter to Supreme Court Justice Andrew Bray Cameron Wilson, CPJ objected to the court’s use of prior restraint to censor the Samoa Observer, and urged Justice Wilson to reconsider his decision. CPJ noted that legitimate objections to the fairness of a report are best addressed in civil court after publication.

The Observer presented a petition to overturn the injunction on February 19. Justice Wilson rejected the petition on February 24.

March 9
Savea Sano Malifa, Samoa Observer, LEGAL ACTION
Aumuagaolo Ropeti Ale, Samoa Observer, LEGAL ACTION

Chief Justice Tiavaasue Falefatu Sapolu heard a petition submitted by the state-owned Polynesian Airlines, asking that Malifa, publisher of the Samoa Observer, and Ale, the paper’s editor, be jailed for contempt of court.

Polynesian Airlines contended that the Observer‘s opinion piece “Nothing Illegal, or Does Polynesian Have Something to Hide?” and a letter to the editor headlined “Polynesian and the IOC,” both of which appeared in the paper’s February 28 edition, violated an earlier court order. Justice Andrew Bray Cameron Wilson had ruled that the Observer was not allowed to publish “any article or story relating to the salaries, remuneration, allowances and benefits paid to employees and higher ranking officers” of Polynesian Airlines without the company’s permission, according to the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA).

On March 4, CPJ sent a letter to Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, urging him to ensure that Malifa and Ale were not imprisoned, and to initiate legal reforms that would protect journalists from being jailed for their work.

On March 16, the Samoan chief justice found Malifa and Ale guilty of civil contempt and fined them 500 talas (about US$230) each. The chief justice also ordered the Observer to publish an apology to Polynesian Airlines.