Samoa’s police chief calls for government to repeal criminal defamation law


By Joyetter Feagaimaali’i

Samoa’s police chief wants the Pacific island country’s government to repeal a criminal libel law that has been criticised as a tool for harassing the media and a waste of police resources.

Initially repealed in 2013, the law was reinstated in 2017 by the government of Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi after local media and anonymous social media accounts had criticised public figures in Samoa.

“Defamation claims should have remained as civil matters, not criminal,” Commissioner of Police Auapa’au Logoitino Filipo told BenarNews on Thursday.

“We have other pertinent cases that require our attention, yet we are wasting our time and resources over defamation matters,” Auapa’au said. “We are now putting together a submission to the Cabinet to consider repealing this Act as soon as possible.”

The Samoan police chief’s call for defamation to be made a civil matter is another possible positive sign for press freedom in Pacific island countries.

In Fiji, a media law that mandates prison sentences for content deemed against the national interest could be replaced with self-regulation, Sitiveni Rabuka, that country’s recently elected prime minister, said this week.

In both Fiji and Samoa, the proposals come after changes of government. Tuilaepa lost power in 2021 after 23 years as the Samoan prime minister. His party had been in government for four decades. The election also resulted in Samoa’s first female prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

In December elections, Fiji, the lowest-ranked Pacific island country in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, ended the 16-year rule of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who came to power in a 2006 coup.

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 of the 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 and Fiji, private media has established a greater role despite government hostility.

Samoa’s rank in the global press freedom index dropped to 45th last year from 21st in 2021.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the fight for press freedom in Samoa is symbolised by the Samoa Observer, a daily newspaper founded in 1978, that over the years had resisted threats, harassment and the burning down of its headquarters.

The press freedom group said Samoa’s parliament reinstated the criminal defamation law under pressure from Tuilaepa, who wanted to silence journalists that had criticised members of his government.

The government’s refusal to make information available to the media or to allow media scrutiny was highlighted by two health crises, a measles epidemic in 2019 that killed dozens of children and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21, it said.

Scrutiny of the criminal defamation law was renewed after a cabinet minister in the current government, Olo Fiti Vaai, made a defamation complaint against Tuilaepa, who had alleged misuse of a government vehicle.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Su’a Hellen Wallwork issued a legal opinion about the defamation case against Tuilaepa that described the offense as at the “mid-lower end of the spectrum” of seriousness.

“As such my office cannot prioritise this matter over more serious prosecutions in the Supreme Court,” she said.