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In 2017, Samoa's Parliament made libel a crime. How will this affect Bloggers and Social Media?

Hand showing the international symbol for peace, decorated in the national colors of Samoa. Flickr page of Public Domain Photography (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 2013, Samoa withdrew libel from its criminal law as a media reform initiative. But the change didn't last long. At the end of 2017, the parliament of the Polynesian island nation unanimously voted to revive its criminal libel law after Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said it is needed “to fight ghostwriters and troublemakers.”

The Crimes Amendment Bill features a new part (9A), following Section 117, that proscribes “crimes against a person’s reputation.” A person found guilty of violating this law faces a three-month prison term.

Tuilaepa said the criminal libel law has roots in Christian teachings, and is intended to protect ordinary citizens against defamation:

"This is a Christian move to protect the victims who are being defamed. This law is designed as a refuge to people whose names and reputations have been ruined."

But Tuilaepa added that the law will be used against anonymous bloggers and Facebook users who spread lies and misinformation.

He cited the blogger Ole Palemia, who has been writing posts accusing politicians of corruption, sexual assault, and abuse of power without providing evidence.

In November 2017, Tuilaepa suggested that someone should hire hackers to track down the person or people behind this anonymous blog.

Mata'afa Keni Lesa, the editor of local news outlet the Samoa Observer, called the new law a “stunt” that will not catch faceless bloggers.

"The fact is the government’s recent “Criminal Libel” stunt will not catch these faceless bloggers. You cannot prosecute an unknown person."

The editor warned that the government’s real aim could be the “crippling of the media:”

"This is yet another move designed to cripple the legitimate media who exist to be the watchdog and challenge (to) the establishment. Perhaps what Prime Minister Tuilaepa and members of his administration should do is get off Facebook and do some real work."

But Tuilaepa dismissed the charge that he wants to control the media:

"There have been writings that accuse me of being a dictator (in relation to the Criminal Libel). But it is not my law. They (writers) are in favor of those doing the damage. What about those who are victims of defamation?"

He stressed that journalists have nothing to fear if they write accurate stories.

Read more at Global Voices