16 August 1999


Criminal libel charges against "Samoa Observer Two" withdrawn

Incident details

Fuimaono Fereti, Savea Sano Malifa

legal action

(PINA/IFEX) - On 13 August 1999, the "Samoa Observer" reported that the
criminal libel action by the late Samoan Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti
Alesana, against the paper's publisher and a former editor were ended by the
Supreme Court. The "Samoa Observer" reported that on 12 August, Justice Patu
Tiavaasu'e Falefatu Sapolu accepted an application by Samoa's
Attorney-General, Brenda Heather, for the proceedings to be discontinued.

The judge announced that "an application for a permanent stay" of the
proceedings was before the court, and asked if there was an objection. The
second respondent, lawyer Katalaina Maka Sapolu, offered none. The court
ruling also effectively discontinued the hearing of an appeal scheduled for
23 August, the newspaper reported.

The appeal by the "Samoa Observer" questioned the ruling by another judge
following his hearing of constitutional arguments on the charge. That judge
agreed that the defendants' constitutional rights were at the risk of being
breached under criminal libel, but ruled that the hearing of the charge
should proceed anyway, the newspaper said.

Charged were the publisher of the "Samoa Observer", Savea Sano Malifa, and
the paper's former Samoan-language editor, Fuimaono Fereti. They were sued
for criminal libel over the publication in Samoan of a letter from a Samoan
living in New Zealand, Misatauveve Joseph Hollywood. They could have been
jailed for up to six months if convicted.

In an editorial comment headlined "Thank you, Samoa" the "Samoa Observer"
said: "The discontinuation of criminal libel proceedings against the Samoa
Observer by the Supreme Court yesterday, was the best news this newspaper
has heard for a long time.

"News of it naturally evoked an outpouring of relief throughout the
newspaper office. It came at a time when the spirit has weakened so much
from so many disappointments. Now, there's a feeling of rejuvenation, hope.

" ... thanks to Attorney-General Ms Brenda Heather for stepping in and
exercising the constitutional authority vested in her office. So ended that
tiring episode which has been the cause of sleepless nights for months.

"The criminal libel charge was filed by the late Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti
Alesana, against the publisher of the Samoa Observer, Savea Sano Malifa, and
the paper's Samoan editor at the time, Fuimaono Fereti.

"He sued over a letter sent by a Samoan living in New Zealand on 6 March
1997, and was later published in the Samoan language. Although the letter
was severely edited with all the names appearing in it removed, the acronym
PM remained. According to Fuimaono, it had honestly escaped his eye. But
that was just not good enough.

"But then a series of court hearings started. They moved from what was then
the Magistrate's to the Supreme Court, and up to the Court of Appeal which
ordered the matter returned to the Supreme Court.

"This was when constitutional arguments were heard on whether the matter
should proceed to a hearing. In his ruling, presiding judge Moran said it
should. So the defendants lodged an appeal against Moran's ruling. This was
to be heard on 23 August. But early this year, the late PM Tofilau passed
away and one of his lawyers, Katalaina Maka Sapolu, became the sole

"This time, AG Ms Heather intervened seeking a court order to stop the
proceedings permanently. This was granted. Although the late PM had also
sued the Samoa Observer for civil defamation, I am not going into that now.
Enough to say that the time has come to begin afresh, in the hope that unity
prevails, not division.

"The Samoa Observer expresses its sincere appreciation to all those who
might have been involved in bringing this matter to an end. We owe a lot to
our lawyers Patrick Fepulea'i and Tauiliili Harry Schuster of Fepulea'i Law
Office, and to our New Zealand barristers, Lyn Stevens QC, and Dr Rodney
Harrison QC. Thank you Samoa for your patience and understanding."

Background Information

The "Samoa Observer", which was founded by Malifa and his wife Jean, is
Samoa's only daily newspaper and its main independent news voice. In recent
years, Samoa's independent news media and journalists have faced increasing
pressure after highlighting stories alleging growing corruption and abuse of
public office. The "Samoa Observer" printing plant was burnt down under
highly suspicious circumstances; Malifa was assaulted by relatives of a
government minister; government advertising was withdrawn from the
newspaper; threats were made to impose newspaper licensing; and a law was
introduced requiring journalists in libel actions to reveal their sources.
The "Samoa Observer" and its staff have faced a series of criminal and civil
libel cases, and injunction actions to prevent them from publishing
information (see IFEX alerts).

Malifa and his wife Jean are previous winners of the Pacific Islands News
Association (PINA) Pacific Freedom of Information award, Commonwealth Press
Union (CPU) Astor Award and "INDEX on Censorship" press freedom award.


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