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EDITORIAL | COMMENT
by avaiki nius agency editor, jason brown
A feisty mid-Pacific daily paper, the Samoa Observer, led up to World Press Freedom Day by labelling an island journalist “evil” and calling for her to be “shot.”
Attacking a story on guns and drugs in Samoa, the daily paper named the journalist in its headline: “Barbara Dreaver: The evil side of journalism”
The paper stops short of detail, using the word “evil” only once – in the headline.
“ … TO BE SHOT.”
The paper goes on to say the Pacific Correspondent from TVNZ’s One News based her story on “lies and deceit” – using the phrase – in quotes – not once but twice.
Reads part of the editorial:
“… Dreaver’s presentation is a case of “lies and deceit” - hence it does not deserve any form of recognition. But the issue should not end here. This case warrants the call for the ‘messenger to be shot’.”
Doubtful whether an average citizen would appreciate inhouse allusion to an old industry adage about “don’t shoot the messenger.”
As it is, the editorial risks reading quite the opposite.
Another old media saying – “throw enough mud and some of it sticks.” The Samoa Observer is accused, here, of leading a smear campaign, character assassination and an incitement to violence, all rolled up with contradictory claims.
Let’s be clear: the editorial is a reckless, unethical and criminal endangerment.
It is also untimely distraction from much bigger issues facing regional media – unwelcome proof that, as politicians have claimed for decades, not all is well in islands journalism. It would be
hypocritical not to examine glaring faults of the Samoa Observer editorial and stories.
hypocritical not to examine glaring faults of the Samoa Observer editorial and stories.
Difficult to know where to begin.
Let’s start with basics.
Tagged as an “editorial” on site search results, the paper does not carry the tag on the editorial page itself, which means commentary could be mistaken as straight news. Tagged or not, the editorial casts deep doubt upon the credibility of a paper well regarded, with awards from colleagues in the region and around the world.
Those awards are not empty vessels, to be parodied about like a court jester – they are powerful symbols of commitment to journalistic ethics – and to welcome being held accountable for them.
One fact troubles particularly.
Further searching of the Samoa Observer site reveals that the paper itself misquotes the TVNZ story as “Drugs and criminal gangs exposed”– but without crediting Dreaver or TVNZ other than referring to “an investigation by a New Zealand journalist.”
Compare the Samoa Observer headline with the angle taken by One News: that “NZ drug trade fuels Samoa gun smuggling” – clear criticism of New Zealand as well as Samoa. In her story, Dreaver referred only once to “gangs” – about deportees to Samoa being ex-gang members from overseas.
THE SAME CRIME
Samoa Observer says it is not necessary to go through all the breaches of New Zealand’s Broadcasting Standards Act to prove conclusively that Dreaver fabricated the One News story.
In failing to do so, Samoa Observer is guilty of the same crime it claims against TVNZ – of not spelling out their alleged facts.
What few facts the paper ‘has’ are heavily twisted versions of the truth, without balancing comment from the news team at the centre of the story. For example, a hand written statement from Dreaver leaked to the Observer was published on the paper’s front page, noting a signed oath to maintain confidentiality.
ANOTHER UNDECLARED EDITORIAL
Instead of emphasising the operative part of the oath … for those “who wish to stay anonymous” the Samoa Observer instead headlines the story as “another piece of Barbara Dreaver’s puzzle shows up.”
Under that banner front page, the news item ends with another undeclared
“Whether Dreaver and TVNZ agree, the truth is that as anyone who has lived in this country for many years will vouch, there is no such thing as a gang culture in Samoa. There are guns and drugs, but there is no gang culture”.
Such a finding, quoting no one, defies logic. Gang culture is not confined to hanky-wearing posers from Los Angeles or Otara – or Hollywood-hyped DVDs glamorising organised crime.
Gangs take all forms, all sizes, all states; regions. In some countries, some gangs run well-documented campaigns that infiltrate, seduce, intimidate and eliminate high-placed players in police, justice, government, legislature and, yes, media.
Given it’s rapid u-turn on gangs and guns in Samoa, and its untagged, undeclared editorials, the Samoa Observer looks a bit of a poser too – all gang-style bullying and posturing.
It would be slightly different if the “evil” headline had appeared under the personal photo and byline of publisher Savea Sano Malifa, as many damning commentaries have in the past.
Some newspapers pride themselves on taking a different line from founding publishers – and explaining why. Absence of such balance invites questions about due process in Samoa Observer newsrooms.
Given lack of evidence against One News, and a failure to substantiate its own claim of “evil”, the Observer sounds hysterical, uninformed.
Malifa has been successfully sued in the past. Like other media personalities, he is known for volcanic meltdowns.
Also for occasionally vitriolic commentary, Malifa once comparing the prime minister to “Hitler”, an event shrugged off locally as big man politics.
This month’s “evil” editorial represents a significant escalation of rhetoric – ridiculous if not so dangerous.
Until now, Malifa has enjoyed a fairly unchallenged run as something of a shaggy lion of Pacific journalism – a rough, tough uncompromising hack from the days reporters sat on orange boxes and bashed away at manual typewriters.
In the wild, lions sometimes club away cubs that get too nippy.
Outside of the African savannah, some old battle-scarred media lions forget that laws of the jungle have no place in editorial content.
This morning, World Press Freedom Day crossed the dateline, over into a second day of celebration for the region, this time in eastern Pacific Islands.
Regional delegates begin flying into Samoa for the Project XIX meeting facilitated by the Pacific Freedom Forum with assistance from UNESCO and other supporters. To their credit, the Samoa Observer editorial have already agreed to debate their coverage as part of a draft programme, with potential for hot debate.
The debate could get even hotter.
DRAFT STATEMENT ?
Observer editorials and stories may be followed up with a statement from JAWS, the Journalists Association of Samoa – also attacking TVNZ.
If so, JAWS and the Samoa Observer should ready themselves for some questions – like how many of their own Code of Ethics were broken writing that editorial?
Make that a “draft” code – and it’s a “code of practice”, not ethics.
An aid-funded meeting on a code of practice dates from 2006 and is still stamped as a “draft” – apparently yet to be ratified or officially adopted.
On a related site, JAWS flatly states that “Journalists of Samoa adhere to the JAWS Code of Ethics,” but make no mention of the fact that each page is subtitled a “a draft code of practice.”
A code of practice differs in part from a code of ethics in not having sanctions against improper conduct, such as being struck off the membership of a journalism association for gross misconduct. An anonymous consultant from the Thomson Foundation stated in a “stage one report” that “one or two key figures, despite repeated contact, were not available for discussion, possibly because they were not members of JAWS, but maybe for other reasons.”
The JAWS executive site has a list of Samoan media, but it is not clear which are members and, in any case, has not been updated since 2006.
In the short term, timing of the attacks on TVNZ could not be worse for a regional profession attempting to wrestle with outside challenges to freedoms of information, expression and media.
Bad timing, and bad reporting, however, are exactly what other sectors of society have had had to deal with for decades, if not centuries, of budding then burgeoning press freedoms. Pacific Islands media are no exception. A certain amount of unprofessionalism is an assumed risk of the journalism trade, otherwise we wouldn’t need codes of ethics, and neither would doctors or lawyers.
Somehow, though, our industry has got away with public controversy over its own lack of accountability by a) ignoring the public, b) waving the freedom flag, c) sleazy smears against critics including colleagues or d) combinations of the above.
In a longer term view, it could be said there is no better time for controversy over the Samoa Observer – and a handful of other Samoa outlets – than this week’s Project XIX meeting.
Parts of the meeting promise an opportunity for up close and professional questions among an industry unused to holding itself to account.
What needs to come out of that meeting are practical suggestions for debating and hopefully resolving strong opinion in disagreement, like this editorial, over ethics.
In criticising Samoa media, two things demand more context. One is that Samoa is host nation to the constitution of the Pacific Islands News Association, has hosted the region to PINA meetings and possibly has more industry information online than all their media partners in the entire English speaking region.
Compare this with the Cook Islands, where this agency was founded. The Cooks have not hosted PINA, not once. There is an online site for the Cook Islands Journalists Association, but very little on it. Unlike a newspaper in Rarotonga with this writer as publisher and Dreaver as editor during the 1990’s, the Samoa Observer has survived crisis and thrived in an expanding range of overseas Samoa communities. As noted here, Samoa Observer is a regionally and globally respected newspaper, with its long staff list from over the years reading like a who’s-who of Samoa media.
None of this excuses what amounts to thuggish death threats within the newsroom making it all the way into print, and online.
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