New criminal libel laws need urgent consultation in Samoa at the start of the new year, says PFF, the Pacific Freedom Forum.
“Lack of consultation before the bill was pushed through parliament is good reason to consult more widely now,” says PFF Chair Monica Miller.
Consultations should include a wide range of representatives from across society, says Miller, speaking from American Samoa.
Old and new media should be represented at consultations, including bloggers and other social media users such as on Facebook, as well as newspaper, radio, television audiences, and all voices supporting freedom of expression.
“Government and all media users need to sit at the same table to work out how the new laws fit with existing institutions, including the courts and the Samoa Media Council.”
Concerns about anonymous bloggers should not override the right of citizens to speak freely, without fear of being jailed, says Miller.
“Media are right to criticise the return to a colonial-era law, from half a century ago.”
But she also says media need to engage with other institutions on agreed ways to avoid potential threats to media and other freedoms, such as with the Attorney General’s office and the Samoa Law Commission.
Speaking from Papua New Guinea, PFF co-Chair Alexander Rheeney says Pacific people already have the right to seek civil court action on alleged libel.
Returning libel to criminal courts means Samoa is stepping back from its regional leadership role in good goverance, says Rheeney.
“We have already seen examples around the region of governments using millions in tax dollars to fund civil action against news media”, he says.
“Samoa media users, new and old, now risk jail time and criminal fines despite constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech.”
Outside of the constitution, Samoa is also a member of the United Nations, where article 19 of the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights also guarantees freedom of expression, and access to information.
Speaking from Palau, fellow PFF co-Chair Bernadette Carreon says government would have been better off introducing freedom of information laws, not turning journalism into a crime again.
“We’re stuck with it now, so consultations need to set our clear policy for criminal libel action, especially from within government,” she says.
PFF is calling for complainants to be encouraged to explore existing procedures, such as writing an official complaint to media outlets, or to the Samoa Media Council, before seeking arrests under criminal media laws. [/restrict]