Despite the vitality of some of its media groups, this Pacific Island archipelago with 200,000 inhabitants is in the process of losing its status as the region’s model of press freedom.
The fight for press freedom is symbolised by the Samoa Observer, an independent daily founded in 1978, that has resisted threats, harassment and the burning down of its headquarters, and enjoys a reputation that is admired by editors throughout the Pacific. The other main newspaper is Savali, a state-owned, bilingual (Samoan/English) weekly, that focuses on providing positive coverage of the government’s activities. The main TV channel, TV1, is the product of the privatisation of the state broadcaster, the Samoa Broadcasting Corporation. The Talamua group operates SamoaFM and other media outlets, while the national radio station 2AP calls itself “the Voice of the Nation”.
Although Samoa is a parliamentary democracy with free elections, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) held power for four decades until it was narrowly defeated in the April 2021 general election by Samoa United in Faith (Faʻatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi or FAST), a new party led by Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa. Part of the reason for the HRPP’s defeat was its plan to overhaul Samoa’s constitutional and customary law framework, which would have threatened freedom of the press. Some politicians nonetheless continue to attack press freedom.
A law criminalising defamation was repealed in 2013, raising hopes that were dashed in December 2017, when parliament restored the law under pressure from then Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi so that he could attack journalists who dared to criticise members of his government. Journalists have no guaranteed access to state-held information and the government's refusal to make information available to the media (or submit to regular scrutiny by journalists) has been highlighted by two health crises – a severe measles epidemic in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-21.
State and privately owned media coexist, each with their own sources of funding. In both cases, their financial base is fragile, which can result in staff layoffs in a crisis, as has been the case since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Samoan society is 98% Christian (and 80% Protestant). Both Protestant and Catholic churches have a strong presence in the media, one that has increased since 2017, when Christianity was named as the state religion in the constitution’s preamble. Subjects such as gender violence, gay rights and abortion are excluded from public debate. The FAST party’s rise to power in 2021 confirmed this tendency.
The Journalism Association of (Western) Samoa (JAWS) is press freedom’s leading champion and takes threats seriously. Then Prime Minister Tuila’epa threatened to ban Facebook in 2020 in response to journalistic content he did not like and personally sued a blogger for defamation.