APIA, 09 SEPTEMBER 2019 (SAMOA OBSERVER) —The President of the Journalists Association of (Western)) Samoa (JAWS) Rudy Bartley, has called on the Government to dump its proposal to criminalise the leaking of Government documents with punishments of up to seven years’ jail.

Bartley said the Association is concerned by the planned amendment to the Crimes Act.

“It seems very heavy handed to impose such a high penalty for this type of offence if proven in Court,” he said.

“There is already Public Service Commission (PSC. Code of Conduct in place which addresses this issue with set penalties and actions for breaches.

“To criminalise such breaches with custodial penalties is irresponsible and lacking proper due diligence. JAWS is against this amendment.”

The draft amendment to the Crimes Act would make it illegal for public servants to disclose “any official information to any third party for any reason”.

Government employees found to breach the law will face penalties of up to seven years’ imprisonment and fines of $3000 tala(US$1,121).

During his weekly media programme with Talamua, the Prime Minister took aim at the Samoa Observer and accused the newspaper of publishing antagonistic stories with negative consequences for the Government and the nation.

The Prime Minister cited the example of a report in the newspaper last month about Samoa Airways’ jet operations incurring a $6.6 million (US$2.4 million) loss between October to December, last year.

That report was based on figures in a financial performance report submitted by Samoa Airways and to the Ministry of Public Enterprises, which was available for download from the Government’s website. It was taken down shortly after the story’s publication.

“They are in the middle of putting together their finances, yet they published the losses of the airline and it has a negative impact on the market,” Tuilaepa said.

According to JAWS the proposed amendment seems to come about because of governments desperation to “plug the leaks” in its administration.

“The problem is not the unofficial ‘leaking’ of information but the lack information provided by Government on matters of public interest and national improvement.

“Samoa has for many years been the champion of ‘transparency and good governance’ as evident in Samoa’s ranking at 22 in the recently released 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

“This amendment will surely have an negative impact on this ranking as critical sources providing important information will think twice about releasing such information because of the harsh penalties.

“This will also impact on the work of the media in reporting on important issues affecting the people’s rights to know what’s really going on in government.”

The JAWS reminded the Government they are accountable to the people and it quoted from the Freedom Forum Institute: “The purpose of the press is to serve as a watchdog on government, and share and distribute information on government conduct so that the public will be able to hold the government accountable.

“The responsibility of the media is to disclose information about [Government] corruption, violations of the law, wasting public money, or abusing authority.

“In many instances, Government should provide such information freely preferable on an official level.

“If this not possible (as in many cases in Samoa), sources within Government will provide such information unofficially. For any functioning democracy, the first option is preferred.

“It is also important to note that the [media] now has a Code of Practice which represents an attempt to balance the concepts of media freedom and responsibility.”

Bartley said the Code of Practice gives strong emphasis to the importance of media self-regulation.

The Code addresses the issue of confidential sources with a strong emphasis on protecting sources and their identities.

“There are set guidelines in handling information from confidential sources and are in place to make sure the information is good for use by media,” he said.

“To better understand this issue, we also need to see why public servants leak information.”

The JAWS. noted that politicians and policy makers may wish to gauge the reaction of the public to proposals before committing to them officially, affording them a degree of plausible deniability.

“People with access to confidential information may find it to their advantage to make it public, without themselves appearing to be responsible for publishing the information,” he said.

“People privy to secret information about matters which they consider to be morally wrong or against the public interest — often referred to as ‘whistle blowers’ — may leak the information.”

JAWS says that while the Prime Minister has made it a point to direct all Ministries and Government agencies to engage the media in releasing information for public dissemination adherence to the directive has been uneven:

“There are a few government agencies which have a good relationship with the media and this is very good,” he said.

“However most agencies seem to only provide good stories to the media for self-promotion and publicity.

“More controversial issues are either covered up, ignored or given the runaround in the meeting excuses used very often by some CEOs.

“Thus using information from unofficial sources are the only option left for media to use in reporting on issues of public and national interest.”

JAWS says given the amendment is in draft stage, it should not proceed.

“The PSC code is ample to address such issues of “leaking” government information,” he said.

Bartley said the Government should take a different tack on the issue of making official information available.

“What the government needs to do is [initiate] the creation of the “Freedom of Information” (FOI) Act in order for the media and public [to] access any information on an official level.

“With the FOI Act, Government agencies will be bound by law to release such information (whether they like it or not) for the greater good and national interest.

“With this law, there will be no need for unofficial “leaks” as there will enough information provided “officially” to produce good, verified and factual stories for public dissemination.

“There should also be additional Act to protect ‘whistle blowers’ to reinforce Samoan government’s ideals for transparency and good governance.” (PACNEWS)