SAMOA OBSERVER'S SAVEA SANO MALIFA CHALLENGES THE POWERFUL

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By Michael Field of Agence France-Presse

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (October 30, 1998 - The Dominion)---As people go, it is easy to see why Samoa's powerful want to break Savea Sano Malifa.

A sometimes irritable and argumentative character he has never kow-towed to the elite and in 20 years of journalism, most of them as editor of the Samoa Observer he founded, he has been an uncompromising muckraker.

In 1994 his newspaper office was burned down and later he was beaten up.

Now the political elite has found a new ally silencing him, the courts, and with taxpayers money Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana has been suing him for large, unpayable sums.

Savea's struggle is just one of many around the Pacific as the media come under attack in a power play between traditional culture and old male-entrenched power versus educated untitled people.

It is also a simpler battle against endemic corruption and inefficiency in the region, which has, over several decades, seen the powerful enrich themselves while economies and ordinary people make little progress at all.

In Tonga the royal controlled government has tossed a couple of journalists in jail for crimes that did not exist and in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu reporters work under duress.

In October the Commonwealth Press Union, meeting in Kuala Lumpur, named Savea the 1998 winner of the Commonwealth's most prestigious press freedom honor, the Astor Award. It goes to an individual considered to have made a significant contribution toward press freedom.

Savea's newspaper is the country's only daily and competes with the totally state-controlled television and radio service. By any standards the control is totalitarian and reflects a personal hatred by Tofilau of his rival, Opposition Leader Tupua Tamasese Efi, who is banned from appearing.

The Observer has broken stories of high level corruption and gross mismanagement, particularly over the national carrier Polynesian Airlines.

It has also revealed that the Prime Minister has something of a criminal record; two counts of theft in 1966. There have also been stories of government resources being used for private gain, and it was one such story that may yet destroy Savea.

It said the Prime Minister had personally profited from the government doing up a hotel that Prince Edward eventually stayed in. Then a Porirua taxi-driver wrote a rather demented letter saying Tofilau was "a wicked man" who "will be welcomed into hell by the queen of hell."

The government strategy was overwhelming with big civil and criminal law suits.

Tofilau flew in a Queen's Counsel from Australia to run the hotel case.

The Observer got what amounts to pro bono legal aid from the only lawyer in Samoa willing to help.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Sir Gordon Bisson, a retired judge from New Zealand, took a different view of Savea to that of the CPU, saying he "did not impress me as a witness" and "fell far short of the truth and resorted to a malicious defamation of the Prime Minister."

Tofilau won SAM$ 50,000 (US$ 16,665) in damages and Savea has to come up too with costs of around SAM$ 230,000 (US$ 76,659). The Observer sells 2,300 copies a day.

Now Savea has to deal with a criminal libel charge over the taxi-driver's letter and if convicted could go to jail for up to eight months. Other suits are pending in the business of getting the courts to close up the media.

"For these guys it has become very personal too," says Savea. "These guys don't want people to be free to express views. They do not want a free press. They want to end us, kill us."

Earlier this year government's budget included a payment of SAM$ 783,000 (US$ 260,974) to cover Tofilau's legal bills against Savea. Then cabinet decided they would pay the legal costs of any minister wanting to sue the Observer.

Finance Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said the government backing was to ensure that ministers were not discouraged from suing newspapers because it was costly.

"This policy has been long thought of by government as a way to solve the thing that is happening now: the great easiness by which reporters write what is slanderous of leaders of the country," Tuilaepa said.

Tofilau, 74 and now struggling to survive a series of major health crises, last year said the Observer was biased and inaccurate.

"I just about died from shame because of newspapers," Tofilau said.

Three years ago Tonga, which claims now to have the world's highest per capita number of Ph.D.s and law degrees, banned me (and re-stated the ban this year), but it was small beer to what came next.

Tongan Police Minister, former Auckland lawyer Clive Edwards, dispatched a squad of police around the independent weekly Taimi ‘o Tonga to seize letters to the editor which questioned Edwards' abilities.

Acting editor Filo ‘Akau‘ola and two letter writers were tossed in jail and were eventually convicted of a charge of making Edwards angry. It is against the law to make any public servant, except laborers, angry.

Later Tonga's life-appointed Justice Minister David Tupou went to the Atlanta Olympics without formal permission of the Speaker, Noble Fusitu‘a, who is given to wearing combat gear most of the time.

Pro-democracy MP ‘Akilisi Pohiva submitted a motion to impeach Tupou and its contents appeared in Taimi before it was tabled in the Legislative Assembly.

Fusitu'a and Edwards, who has never won an election and got his post by appointment of King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV, had Pohiva, ‘Akau‘ola and editor ‘Eakalafi Moala bought before the house, charged with offending the house and ordered them to jail for 30 days.

They were eventually released after 28 days thanks to a CPU aided New Zealand lawyer Barry Wilson.

The Court of Appeal ruled the three had been "convicted of an offense that did not exist."

Just after he got out police nabbed 'Akau'ola and charged him with sedition and a new cycle began of suits, counter-suits and appeals.

Often heard in the Pacific is the claim that the western style media is an anathema to indigenous culture.

Those who most passionately argue the incompatibility of media freedom and Polynesian culture are middle-aged-to-old males. They control the first three estates in an at times oppressive combination and only the Fourth Estate is beyond their control. That outrages them.

Thus when, for example, the Fiji press reveals the leadership and its friends were milking a state run bank into bankruptcy, the culture grenade was lobbed. Foreign Minister Berenado Vunibobo said press freedom is an imported idea and journalists should face up to their responsibilities and stop covering the bank's misfortunes "hysterically."

What most riles the leadership is that the media are young, university educated and predominantly female -- all people who only have servant roles in traditional society.

It makes being a journalist more of a cause than a career.

Michael Field is Agence France-Presse's New Zealand and Pacific correspondent. Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz WWW: http://www.afp.com/english/

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