Wednesday, May 10, 2006

JAWS Editor Profile - Savea Sano Malifa

Savea Sano Malifa is the editor and publisher of the Samoa Observer.

The paper has faced many lawsuits because of its critical reporting. Malifa has been assaulted for his work, and he and his family have received death threats. Savea Sano Malifa is the editor and publisher of the Samoa Observer, Samoa’s only independent daily newspaper. Since its founding in 1978, the Observer has repeatedly fallen afoul of the government for its exposés of government corruption. Malifa and his family have received death threats. His paper has faced a number of lawsuits over the years, and government advertising was withdrawn in an attempt to silence the Observer’s critical reporting.

Malifa, who is also a poet, playwright and novelist of renown, studied engineering in Wellington, New Zealand, but later changed to a career in journalism. He founded the Samoa Observer as a weekly in October 1978 and started a second publication, the Sunday Samoan, with his wife, Jean, in 1987.In April 1994, the Observer’s editorial offices and printing press were destroyed in a suspicious fire in what many believed was retaliation for the paper’s reporting on allegations of government corruption. The Observer’s publication frequency had to be reduced to two editions a week, but the paper went back to daily publication in November 1994.

Since the beginning, Malifa has faced a number of civil and criminal libel actions brought by the prime minister, government officials and business leaders. He was assaulted by relatives of a government minister, and death threats were made to Malifa and his family. In 1996 all official advertising was withdrawn and given to newspapers directly linked to the government.The Observer rocked the government in April 1997 when it uncovered a scandal involving the alleged sale of Samoan passports in Hong Kong. The ensuing political crisis led to public demonstrations against the government and angered Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana, who called for regulations to license and control the press.In 1997 Tofilau brought criminal defamation proceedings against Malifa and his editor after the paper allegedly defamed the prime minister’s political and personal reputation. He also threatened to back legislation allowing the government to close newspapers for stirring up trouble. However, bringing some good news for press freedom, the Supreme Court ruled in August 1999 that the criminal libel case against the Observer should be discontinued. The Samoan government announced in May 1998 that top officials from the prime minister to the leaders of state corporations could use public funds to pursue civil libel claims against the media. As a result, suits brought by officials upset by critical news coverage became a painful routine for the Observer. In September 1998 the Supreme Court awarded Prime Minister Tofilau a US$40,000 judgment against the paper. Tofilau had sued the paper for defamation because of a 1997 story claiming that public funds were used to upgrade a hotel owned by the prime minister’s children. After the ruling Malifa feared that mounting legal fees could force him to sell his paper.

Malifa was awarded the Pacific Islands News Association’s Freedom of Information Award in 1994. He received both the Commonwealth Press Union’s Astor Award for Press Freedom and the Index on Censorship press freedom award in recognition of his courage and commitment to the principles of free expression.Some in the Samoan media were hoping for a more relaxed approach from the government after Tofilau, suffering from liver cancer, stepped down in November 1998. However, such hopes were not immediately forthcoming as the new prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, criticized the Commonwealth Press Union and Index on Censorship for giving awards to the Observer. He said that the Samoan government should have been the recipient of both awards for allowing the newspaper to be published freely in the country.“We all know that a vigilant press is vital to the survival of freedom of opinion. Without it there can be no democracy. This freedom is the sustenance for the mind,” Malifa said upon receiving the Astor Award at a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur. “And this freedom is even more needed in small countries in the Pacific where I come from. This is because our governments are young and our economies very fragile. Because some of them are run by unprincipled men with one-track visions, and to many of them, the temptation to get rich quickly at the expense of others is overpowering. ... This is why their dominating desire is to smother press freedom, so that it is kept out of the way, completely.”

JAWS Input:
Samoa Observer has since thrived, with New Zealand and American Samoa Publications. In the last few years the Monday Observer was introduced thus making it a complete daily newspaper. Savea continues to contribute to eliminating corruption and encouraging transparancy and accountability in Samoa.

Article Courtesy of International Press Institute with input by JAWS.