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APIA, Samoa (September 6, 2000 - Islands Business Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---Who is Savea Sano Malifa? Provoke or prod him about his pet hates, particularly when he has had a drink or two, and his "F’s" fly. Samoa's Opposition Leader, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese, explained recently: "The language races until it jumbles and occasionally becomes gibberish. He becomes fearsome and aggressive. But it is all a façade."

Being a poet and author Malifa isn't at all offended by being so pictured. He's rather proud of that indictment in fact. As publisher/editor of Samoa's daily newspaper, the Samoa Observer, he's pretty good at putting in the boot -- soft ones and hard ones -- himself in his quest for truth and honesty.

Because he was not afraid to do that in 1994, his office and printing press were set on fire and destroyed. The believed arsonist was soon afterwards murdered -- not by him, he hastens to add.

"People were deeply involved in corruption," he recalls. "We were writing about them and we became enemies of the state. They burned the building to make us shut up, but they did not succeed."

The fire wasn't the end of it. Malifa was beaten up and he and his family threatened. A succession of legal writs cost him and his wife, Jean, more than ST$ 400,000 (US$ 135,364) to defend, all the while scraping up the money they needed to survive while carrying on with the newspaper at a church press.

First the then prime minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana, a church minister with a philosophy, says Malifa that "anyone can be bought for a price" sued for ST$ 250,000 (US$ 84,602). This was over a report alleging he had accepted a ST$ 3,000 (US$ 1,015) bribe from a Korean businessman.

Next came another attempted ST$ 250,000 (US$ 84,602) hit over a report that a cabinet minister had taken cattle from a government farm. The same minister, now serving life imprisonment for having a cabinet colleague murdered, allegedly screamed into Sano's office to threaten him. "I am a Mafia man. I can get a hit man to kill you, your wife and your kids."

Prime Minister Tofilau sued again over a report suggesting that public funds had been used to fix up his family's hotel at Savai'i.

A report of election bribery brought another writ, while the publication of a letter from a Samoan resident of New Zealand who condemned the prime minister as a bad man brought a criminal libel action that threatened to land the Observer's publisher in jail.

"We lost but we won," Malifa says. "We won the main argument, but the court said that we had defamed the prime minister."

Two of the actions against Malifa were terminated or withdrawn. The criminal libel action fizzed out with Tofilau's death from cancer.

"Public feeling was all for us; otherwise the newspaper would not be there," says the Observer's publisher.

In trying to destroy the Samoa Observer, Tofilau announced that newspaper licensing laws would be made to deal with the Observer "and other newspapers that cause trouble."

The government stopped all advertising with the Observer, met the prime minister's legal costs of ST$ 738,000 (US$ 249,746) and declared that it had set up a ST$ 400,000 (US$ 135,364) fund to pay the legal costs of "government leaders who claimed they had been defamed by newspapers."

Malifa's experiences in upholding freedom of expression and information ideals in Samoa brought him four major international awards. They began with his peers in the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) recognizing him and Jean with the Pacific Freedom of Information award. They culminated this year when the International Press Institute named him as one of the world's 50 press freedom heroes of the past 50 years.

But times are also changing. "A big difference has emerged," says Malifa. "The government realizes that what happened in the past was bad. They are really serious about making amends. Corruption has slowed down. It is not as bad as it was before.

"I know that the (present) Prime Minister is a good intelligent person and that he knows what he is doing."

The Samoa Observer grows in strength. That mighty dollop of legal costs has been paid off and the newspaper will soon move into a ST$ 400,000 (US$ 135,364) new office. Malifa -- and his constant quest for the public's right to know -- are having the last laugh.

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