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Unity key for Samoa media council law

Journalists and editors in Samoa need to overcome their industry differences if they are to have any hope of ensuring plans for a Media Council do not suffer political interference, warns the Pacific Freedom Forum.

"Unity is key," says PFF Chair Titi Gabi.

"Whatever professional and personal differences exist between the media players in Samoa, they need to find common ground in the fact that a media dominated by a single sector is much less effective."

The government of Samoa has fast-tracked plans for a statutory Media Council, pushing a year ahead of a two-year timeframe recommended by the country's Law Reform Commission.

That timeframe was to allow media a final chance at self-regulation, after more than a decade of industry division over the issue.

Now government has signalled its intention to pass a draft Media Council Bill as early as 2014.

PFF co-chair Monica Miller said passage of the bill ignores early criticism from the country's only industry body, JAWS, the Journalists Association of (Western) Samoa.

"We understand that JAWS has dropped its objections and is in fact now recognised in the draft bill as the statutory body responsible for appointing council members," she said.

"However this is far from a clear endorsement."

Speaking from Pago Pago, Miller recognised strong concern remains among some media organisations who claim JAWS is now dominated by members who support the government.

They point to the fact that the JAWS president elected for several years is a government worker, working as a public relations official.

JAWS President Uale Papali'i Taimalelagi de-registered the organisation last year and, despite promises, has not yet re-registered it.

Miller acknowledges strong criticism of the draft law from media organisations pointing at years of political interference in other institutions aimed at building good governance.

But she said that the draft bill also proposes removing a long controversial clause in the Printers and Newspaper Act 1993 that forces media to reveal sources in legal actions.

"Some news media refused to engage with media council talks while such a draconian provision remains on the law books," said Miller.

"If passed as drafted, however, the Media Council Act offers an opportunity to not only to get that provision revoked, but for news media to use their majority and ensure that this new body represents the interests of all, not just government, as claimed."

The draft Media Council Bill (2014) proposes replacing the 1993 automatic disclosure requirements with new provisions that provide strong public interest protections for sources, overseen by the courts.

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