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Respectful of ‘freedom of the press’ Lolo trashes the News

Saying several times he respects Freedom of the Press, the former Development Bank of American Samoa president Lolo Letalu Matalasi Moliga questioned the “integrity” of Samoa News for reporting on a Section 1602 program draft report, which he described as “trash” that belongs in the “trash bin” next to Samoa News or at the landfill.

To Samoa News, “Our people deserve the truth,” said Lolo at yesterday’s Senate Government Operations Committee hearing in his first public response to the Samoa News stories about the draft report published on three separate days. The program is administered by DBAS.

The senate gallery was packed with Lolo’s supporters and spectators were everywhere in the Fono building lining the corridors and stairs up to the second floor.

DBAS vice president and current acting president Jason Betham and board chairman Malemo Tausaga (who is also the government’s Budget Director) were also called as witnesses before the Senate committee. (Their responses will be reported in Samoa News' Monday issue.)

Committee chairman Sen. Velega Savali Jr. started the one-hour hearing by pointing out that the Section 1602 program has been the subject of a lot of talk in the community and the purpose of the hearing was to get a clear understanding of the program.

Later in the hearing, Velega said one of the goals for the hearing was to first find out what are the federal rules and regulations governing this program.

In his opening comments, Lolo first apologized to senators for what was reported by the newspaper, resulting in this hearing, as well as stirring up the community. Lolo said, he believes it’s not the DBAS that pushed the newspaper to publish the stories, but it was something personal against him. And the reason for this? Lolo asked and said, he believes it’s because of the current political season.

Lolo, a candidate for governor, told senators that he truly believes in press freedom, whose goal and responsibility is to report the truth about what is happening in the community, for the community to know. At the same time, it’s the media’s responsibility to protect the rights of every individual in the community.

However, what he has witnessed from the newspaper’s reporting on the draft report is that Samoa News is heading in a different direction. He said he has long appreciated the work of Samoa News, “an icon” in American Samoa for many years. He recalled that all the years he worked in government, Samoa News provided news for the public and even to now, “I hold high respect of Samoa News.”

But the recent stories, Lolo said, he believes those who wrote them were not properly trained or properly educated. And he alleged there are some good journalists at the newspaper but with these recently published stories, he has started to question the “integrity” of Samoa News and its reporting.

“Why?” asked Lolo, who then answered his own question saying, much of the information in the stories “is all trash” because there is no evidence or proof to support them. According to Lolo a good journalist, would first research the issue to get a better understanding but the “lapisi” (trash) presented in the stories to the public — doesn’t belong in the newspaper.” It belongs in the trash bin” next to Samoa News or even in the Futiga Landfill. “That’s where trash belongs.”

He went on to say that DBAS has operated in accordance with the law and governed by the board. He challenged Samoa News to go read DBAS policies, read the rules and regulations and see if he has violated any rules and regulations pertaining to bank operations.

Lolo also said the Section 1602 program benefited the community and has brought changes to where low-income families reside. He said this program is for low-income families to reside in these homes but not for low-income families to build these homes.

He insisted the program operated in accordance with policies of the DBAS and regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department.

The gubernatorial candidate said this program sat for three to four years without anything done with it and when he took over the DBAS post, the first thing the governor wanted was to get this program into American Samoa.

He thanked the governor for pushing DBAS to launch this program, adding that the governor is to be credited for bringing this program to the territory. He said the DBAS was in the midst of trying to relocate following the 2009 tsunami but the governor pushed the bank to move the program forward.

Lolo said when the program was launched, there was only six months left before the deadline to get it in place and DBAS staff set aside other responsibilities and concentrated efforts on Section 1602. He said no one from the community or even Samoa News thanked the sons and daughters of American Samoa who worked hard, who worked day and night to get this program in place. He thanked the DBAS board for approving polices and regulations to get the program operational.

But what has happened now is a lot of complaints, instead of the DBAS staff getting a deserved thank you for their hard work in bringing this $30 million program, which improved the local economy at the time of economic down turn, he said.

He said the newspaper is responsible for reporting the truth to the community, adding that local residents deserve the truth. “If anything, they (the public) deserve better than what we get now,” he said adding that those who are complaining should get copies of the rules and regulations of the program for their review for a better understanding - and that goes for Samoa News as well.

(Samoa News reported in March this year on the Fono 1602 hearing, where Lolo testified. Rules and regulations of the program were reported as well as Lolo’s remarks about the program.)

He said the draft report as well as what the newspaper reported affects “innocent people.” He also publicly apologized to what he called “tusitala lelei” (or good reporters) at Samoa News, saying that it’s not the good reporters who are responsible for this, but “it’s somebody who wants to promote the self interest” of the newspaper, or management of the newspaper.

Lolo alleged that the owners of the newspaper have campaign signs on their property, paused for a second then said "fale". Saying he is not opposed to that because it is an individual person’s right and freedom and the freedom and right of everyone else in the community is deserving of being protected.

He suggested the newspaper not use “freedom” of the press to attack others and destroy the reputation of others. He then said that the reason he didn’t respond to the Samoa News stories is that he does not want to “dignify” a response to “trash” — “trash that does not belong in a newspaper.”

What is important is that the Freedom of the Press the newspaper has, should not be used to stir untrue controversy in a peaceful community such as ours, he said, adding that he does not mind being the target, but the innocent people should not be included. He did not identify the "innocent people".

More in Monday’s edition from the Senate hearing.