Samoa media association condemns govt minister’s reported intimidation of journalist

Joyetter Feagaimaali'i
Pago Pago, American Samoa
Samoa media association condemns govt minister’s reported intimidation of journalist A view of the Samoan capital Apia, July 12, 2019.
Reuters/Jonathan Barrett/File Photo

Samoa’s media association has called for the Pacific island country’s communications minister to apologize after he reportedly attempted to intimidate a female journalist whose questioning over a public interest matter angered him.

The Samoa Observer newspaper, in an editorial on Tuesday, also condemned the treatment of its senior reporter Sialai Sarafine Sanerivi by Minister for Communications and Information Technology Toelupe Poumulinuku Onesemo. 

Sanerivi had been reporting on the possible role of Toelupe’s office in attempting to get customs clearance for a vessel that arrived in Samoa two weeks ago from neighboring American Samoa without the necessary approvals.

Toelupe’s behavior “shows abuse of power of a public officer,” the journalists association, which goes by the acronym JAWS, said on Tuesday. "He needs to apologize for his actions.” 

The newspaper described hostile treatment of Sanerivi by Toelupe that took place over two hours in the minister’s office last week. The minister’s wife also filed a police complaint against the reporter, according to the newspaper.

The minister called Sanerivi “arrogant,” said he did not like “her tone,” belittled her profession as a waste of time and threatened to call the police, according to the editorial. He also demanded the name of the reporter’s government source so he could sue that person.

Sanerivi confirmed the newspaper’s account to BenarNews. Toelupe did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident highlights the uneven state of press freedom in Pacific island countries. Fiji last month repealed a draconian media law that mandated prison sentences for content deemed against the national interest, while Papua New Guinea’s government has been considering proposals for greater control over the media.

In Samoa, defamation is a criminal offense, which in the past has been used to silence journalists and government critics. Samoa’s Police Commissioner Auapa’au Logoitino Filipo earlier this year called for the criminal defamation law to be repealed. He said investigating criminal defamation complaints was a waste of police time. 

Samoa’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index, released on May 3, rose to 19th this year out of 180 countries from 45th in 2022. 

The Samoa Observer editorial said the improvement in the press freedom ranking was a matter for celebration. The treatment of its reporter, however, had raised questions about whether the government would promote and uphold press freedom, the newspaper said. 

The journalists association said Toelupe’s actions toward the reporter were “beyond belief” and undermined the media’s role in a democracy.

“What is even more shocking is the fact that he is the minister responsible for the media,” it said.

State-controlled or influenced media has a prominent role in many Pacific island countries, partly due to small populations and cultural norms that emphasize deference to authority and tradition. 

Some Pacific island nations, such as Tuvalu and Nauru, have only government media because they have the populations of a small town. In others, such as Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Fiji, private media has established a greater role despite episodes of government hostility.   


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