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Samoa's media freedom remains under threat

Some police officers are leading a new hostility towards media, spreading through to the rest of government.Other ministries are now also demanding that news media supply questions by emailstraight out refusing face-to-face interviews.These developments directly contradict government claims towards transparency and accountability, including those made by the Prime Minister.Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi recently told Radio New Zealand International we have the “safest and the freest media in the Pacific.”His comments follow a recent assault against a Samoan Observer journalist photographing a truck accident, and threats made against her and two female colleagues. According to the journalists, police shrugged off their requests for help.RNZI reporter Alex Perrottet said that while the Prime Minister had not heard about the accident, he did give a glowing report of the safety of media personnel in Samoa, despite the attack.Tuilaepa claimed he spoke with journalists two or three times a week and got on very well with all media, unlike the leaders of other Pacific nations.Last Friday, police conducting a drug raid at Toleafoa market told a radio reporter to stop taking photos of them.During the raid a fellow officer grabbed a mobile off a young boy and threw it on the ground, smashing it. At the time, the boy was using it to take photos of the raid as it was taking place.A common law principle is that any member of public can take photos from any public place.However, this does not seem to be understood by police.Last month Tuilaepa warned the Ministry of Police about speaking to the media saying there are “strategies” journalists use to “attack” the ministry.“I advise you to prepare written press releases for all matters where the police are asked and stay away from interviews,” he said, in a letter leaked to this newspaper,” he said at the time.“A press release is how you can control comments being printed in newspapers.”Up until then, police maintained close relations with media, holding weekly press conferences where journalists could get reliable information on-the-record.They also responded readily to phone calls, with Commissioner Lilomaiava Fou Taioalo popular among reporters for his open attitude.At the time Samoa Observer Editor Mata’afa Keni Lesa wrote in an editorial “we seem to be going backwards.”“To be brutally frank, the idea that the police will now only communicate with the media through a press release is a step backwards in terms of transparency and open communication,” he wrote.“We say this because we’ve been here before and we’ve seen how ineffective it was.“For a while, we thought the Police have finally come of age.“Press releases do little to promote media freedom. Why? Well, they are censored pieces of information designed to ‘hide the truth’ from the very people who should know what is happening.”The Police response to the Tuilaepa letter of advice is raising questions about the independence of police from political interference.Meanwhile, Tuilaepa seems to be avoiding Samoa Observer journalists.