Thursday, August 09, 2007

Prime Minister Tuilaepa on Free Press

Thank you for inviting me to this Editors Forum as part of your Association’s programme of events this year to commemorate Press Freedom.

The commemoration of Press Freedom deservedly recognises the important and key contribution of a free media to the progress and development of our society and communities through the free flow and exchange of information and ideas. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Specifies that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion of expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

The Commonwealth also recognises the central role of the free flow of information and ideas to the democratic process and the defence of liberty. In Samoa the Constitution and laws of our country recognise these freedoms and the government strongly advocates the principles of transparency and good governance both in government and private sector. But Freedom, including freedom of the press, comes with responsibility and I need hardly remind of the importance of ‘reporting responsibly’. As you well know, the achievement of good journalism is through diligent application of the principles of ‘Accuracy’ ‘Integrity’ and ‘Fairness’.

I have on past occasions, spoken to your Association about the importance of observing these principles and that it would be a poor excuse on the part of a reporter or editor to set these principles aside in their rush to meet publishing deadlines or broadcast times. On balance however, I tend to think that Samoa’s media has come a long way in observing the principles of good journalism and your Journalists Association appears committed to promoting journalistic standards and ethics. This Editors Forum event seems to me to be designed with compliance with these standards and ethics in mind. I am glad this is happening as it would be a mistake to be complacent or take things for granted. It pays to periodically take stock and self-examine your compliance and observation with the standards and ethics that the Association has set. As sometimes can happen, when there are deadlines to meet, or a front cover story to deliver, journalistic principles can be easily forgotten with backsliding on standards and ethics the results.

I remember one of our journalists, asking me what I thought after the United States Elections. I said that there were lessons for the President in the narrow margin of the results. The headline story that came out after my interview with this reporter was “Prime Minister Tuilaepa backs President Bush”. The article itself did not reflect the headline. When I next met the reporter – he knows who he is – and I asked him what happened, he promptly blamed the Editor! During the campaign for our country’s General Elections last year, another reporter asked me for a response to the Leader of the Opposition’s comment that if the Prime Minister could not understand English, the Prime Minister should ask the Leader of the Opposition for help. My light-hearted reply to the reporter was that my father was only a Samoan who could not speak English. The article that came out somehow portrayed me as some sort of racist against palagi’s and raised the ire of a few people. When I met the reporter later – he also knows who he is – and asked him, he light-heartedly explained that the paper needed a headline story. By implication the editor in this case was also ‘passed the buck’. The point I want to make is the importance of observing the principles of good journalism. I personally found both these episodes amusing as I have reflected in their telling. However, I think it is always important to be cautious with so called ‘journalistic license’ when it stops making a story funny but becomes hurtful to some. The anecdotes are also a cautionary note against sensationalism. If there is a story to tell, by all means report it. But tell it sensibly and as circumstances require, sensitively as well. And if there is no story, it would obviously be flouting all the rules of journalism to invent one.

On this last point on invention, I remember Mike Field, whom quite a few Pacific countries have revoked his visa at one time or other because of his stories, saying to me at the end of the 2004 Pacific Leaders Forum Samoa hosted, that the Samoa Forum was the worst he had covered because the arrangements went well and there was no controversial story to tell! (Mike has family here and probably did not want his Samoan visa revoked!) To end my remarks, a quote I came across in a media journal from Canada illustrates just how far media freedom has advanced over the years. A Mr John Swinton, a former Chief of Staff of the New York Times when he toasted the inadequacy of his profession before the New York Press Club in 1953 said, “If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours (is up) my occupation would be gone. The business of journalists is to...fawn at the feet of mammon and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, and they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities our lives are all the property of other men...” If Mr Swinton was not already out of the job before his toast, he must have gone soon after!

The media has come a long way since Swinton’s times. My request to all the reporters and Editors present this morning is to remember that it’s Swinton’s quote, not mine! On a serious note, I wish to thank the President and the Journalists Association of Samoa for your initiative in holding this event to help self-regulate your profession. As you know, a journalism course is now offered at the National University in recognition of the contribution the media makes to the socio-economic development of our nation as clearly reflected in the hard work of the Association the reports and editors and each of the media outlets in our country. I know that your Association has continued to seek changes in laws that you consider are stifling media freedom. My brief reply to this call is that there is a time for everything and you have seen the changes that have happened in life and circumstances of our country including those affecting the media.

The commitment of the government is to keep moving our country forward. As institutions in the public sector, the private sector and our community continue to mature, so will the changes take place to reflect and accommodate this maturity. I wish you a successful meeting.

As presented at JAWS Editors Forum:
Tuilaepa Sailele Lupesoliai Malielegaoi
Prime Minister Independent State of Samoa
Recepient of the JAWS Advocate of Free Press award