Samoa’s Ombudsman on complaints over Observer story

The Samoa Observer controversy ... the core fa’asamoa principle of feavaa’i (mutual respect) is at stake, like the human right to dignity. Image: Samoa Observer

Samoa’s Office of the Ombudsman has received a number of complaints in relation to the controversial article “Suicide in Church Hall” published on the front page of the Sunday Samoan on June 19.

Many of the complaints have requested the Ombudsman to initiate an inquiry into the Samoa Observer, publisher of the Sunday Samoan.

The Office of the Ombudsman has the power to investigate matters of good governance in public administration and to promote and protect human rights in Samoa.

It does not have the jurisdiction under the Ombudsman (Komesinao Sulufaiga) Act 2013 to regulate the media in Samoa.

Given that many of the complaints were concerned with poor journalism and a lack of media ethics on behalf of the Observer, the Office believes that the proposed Media Council is the appropriate mechanism to investigate and determine such complaints.

This statement does not concern the possible criminal investigation into the death of Jeanine. It is concerned with the article, the photo and the reporting of Jeanine’s death as a suicide by the Observer. It does not suggest that Jeanine’s death was either as a result of suicide or a possible homicide.

That is a matter for the Police and for the Coroner. Rather, the Office has weaved together relevant human rights and fa’asamoa principles to highlight how the article was inconsistent with Samoan culture and was also a fundamental breach of human rights.

Anguish caused
The Office understands the anguish this article has caused within the Samoan community. Many complaints include passionate arguments in the defence of Jeanine and the fa’afafine community.

Samoa's Ombudsman Maiava Iulai Toma ...
Samoa’s Ombudsman Maiava Iulai Toma … suicide reportage guidelines and training needed.

It is heartening to know that so many within the Samoan community defended Jeanine’s rights at a time when Jeanine could not.

It is also encouraging that so many people stood up for the rights of Jeanine’s family as well as fa’afafine in Samoa.

The Office notes that the Observer has since apologised to Jeanine’s family and to its readers for publishing the article. It has also published many editorials criticising the Observer, including a moving statement from the Samoa Fa’afafine Association. This statement seeks to assist in the reconciliation process so that Jeanine’s family can grieve for the loss of their loved one in private and to assure the fa’afafine community that they are loved and protected in Samoa.

Right to dignity and the lack of mutual respect afforded to Jeanine and family

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

— Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights.The dignity of the human person is not only a fundamental human right in itself, but constitutes the basis of all human rights.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined this principle in its preamble where it states “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Article 1 of the Declaration reminds us that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that people should act towards one another in a spirit of ‘brotherhood’.

This concept mirrors the core fa’asamoa principle of feavaa’i (mutual respect). Like the human right to dignity, feavaa’i is demanded of all Samoans. It is something that should be afforded to all people, regardless of their gender, race or creed. It should also be afforded at all stages of the human experience, from birth to adolescence, adulthood and even in death.

The Observer did not afford Jeanine, and the family, respect when it published the photo and printed the article on the front page of the Sunday Samoan. It showed a callous disregard for Jeanine as a human being. It denied Jeanine’s right to inherent dignity and took away Jeanine’s humanity. The Office strongly endorses the Samoa Fa’afafine Association’s comment that we all have a responsibility to incorporate our fa’asamoa in all that we do. This sentiment reflects a central theme of human rights which is that we should respect the rights of others without discrimination.

The misgendering of a fa’afafine
The article also failed to afford Jeanine and the fa’afafine community respect when it referred to Jeanine as a man when the term fa’afafine is widely recognised in the Samoan community Terminology can have a profound impact on a person’s identity, self-worth and inherent dignity. The use of inclusive and accepted terminology empowers individuals. Terminology that describes such intrinsic parts of a person’s identity or characteristics carries a heavy weight and significance. This is particularly so for groups that have been stigmatised in their community. In those circumstances, terms validate who someone is and may help them to feel connected to others who share that identity or those characteristics. While terminology evolves over time, what remains constant is the importance of treating each person with dignity, in a way that protects the person from discrimination and violence.

Fa’afafine are an important part of Samoan culture. They are traditionally known for their hard work and dedication to the family in carrying out the roles and responsibilities of both men and women. We should always consider our fa’asamoa by ensuring that we afford fa’afafine feavaa’i and refer to them in a manner that is both culturally and gender sensitive.

Freedom of expression, the role of the media and the need for industry oversight
The media play an important role in any democratic society. Media organisations such as the Observer help generate public debate on important public issues and ensure that the government and business are held accountable for their actions. Above all else, the media should report the news in an objective and responsible manner. The media should always serve the public by providing it with accurate and reliable information. The article did not do this. It was based on hearsay and insinuated the reasons for Jeanine’s death without corroborating its source.

In an edition of the Observer dated 22 February 2016, the editor stated that Samoa did not need a Media Council as the Observer had been operating for many years without one. The inappropriate publishing of the photo, combined with the insensitive reporting of Jeanine’s death and gender clearly highlights the need for industry oversight of Samoa’s media.

The Media Council Act 2015 creates a mechanism for such oversight. It establishes the Media Council and requires it to develop a Code of Practice regulating the broadcast of news and current affairs in Samoa. Under the Act, complaints can be made to the Council about breaches of the Code. The Council has the power to hear, investigate and make decisions regarding such complaints. This mechanism is established practice around the world with many countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada enacting similar procedures with regards to regulating their media. It is regulation of the media, by the media.

It is the responsibility of the Journalists Association of Samoa (JAWS) to elect an executive committee which then appoints members to the Media Council. It has yet to do this. The Media Act also permits the Head of State, on the advice of Cabinet, to appoint an interim Council if JAWS fails to appoint one itself. It also allows the Interim Council to adopt a Code of Practice from another jurisdiction until one is adopted by the Media Council.

In the same editorial mentioned above, the editor said that the Media Council would result in a restriction of press freedom and freedom of expression in Samoa. The right to freedom of expression is contained in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the Constitution of Samoa. It includes the right of a person to publish information and ideas of all kinds, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media. When the editor of a newspaper decides to publish an article he exercises his right to freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression is not an unlimited right. Under human rights law, a person’s right to freedom of expression can be restricted in certain exceptional circumstances. These include things like protecting a person’s reputation (defamation laws), as well as for the protection of national security, public morals, public health and public order.

As will be explained below, the prevention of suicide is considered a legitimate public health issue. A Media Code of Practice, which includes a set of standards for the reporting of suicide in Samoa is an appropriate way to regulate media behaviour, including preventing the inappropriate reporting of suicide. A Media Code of Practice would not breach Article 19 of the ICCPR and would be a permissible restriction to the right to freedom of expression.

Recommendation: If JAWS has yet to establish the Media Council, the Office of the Ombudsman recommends that the Cabinet establish an Interim Media Council. The Interim Council should adopt a code of practice from another jurisdiction until JAWS can appoint members to the Media Council for it to develop Samoa’s own Media Code of Practice.

Recommendation: The Office of the Ombudsman recommends that once appointed, the Media Council immediately take steps to formulate and adopt Samoa’s own Media Code of Practice.

Recommendation: The Office of the Ombudsman recommends that all the complaints relating to unethical journalism regarding the article “Suicide in Church Hall” be transferred to the Media Council for its consideration.

Reporting of suicide in the media
This section relates to the reporting of Jeanine’s death as a suicide. Again, the Office does not suggest that it was either a suicide or a homicide. This section is only concerned with the appropriate reporting of suicide in the media.

Suicide is a serious public health problem all around the world, including Samoa. The factors contributing to suicide and its prevention are complex and not yet fully understood. There is increasing evidence that suggests the media plays a significant role in both the cause and prevention of suicide. A number of studies have shown that inappropriate reporting can lead to ‘copycat’ suicides. However, it has also been proven that responsible reporting of this issue in the media can help educate the public, and may encourage those at risk to seek help.

In 2008 the World Health Organisation and the International Association for the Prevention of Suicide released a Checklist for Media Professionals to be used when reporting this issue. The Observer failed to do nine out of eleven steps before publishing the article. It failed to:

Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide – suicide is never the result of a single factor or event. It can be misleading to attribute it to a single event such as failing an exam or a breakdown in a relationship.

Avoid language which is sensationalised or normalised suicide – The media should recognise the importance of language when reporting events. Rather than educate Samoa about suicide, the Observer’s article and photo sensationalised Jeanine’s death.

Avoid explicit description of the method used. The Observer’s inclusion of the photo and the article itself failed to do this.

Avoid providing detailed information about the site. Again, The Observer’s inclusion of the photo and the article itself failed to do this.

Word headlines carefullythe word ‘suicide’ should be avoided in the headline.

Avoid including a photo of someone who has died of a suicide.

Show consideration for family and friends who are grieving for the deceased. As mentioned above, the Observer failed to afford Jeanine’s family mutual respect (feavaa’i) by publishing the photo and the article.

The Office notes that the New Zealand High Commission has offered to fund training for the media in Samoa on the appropriate reporting of suicide and suicide prevention. The Office understands that the media is responding positively to this initiative.

Recommendation: The Office of the Ombudsman recommends that the Media Council, once appointed, adopt a set of standards for the appropriate reporting of suicide in the media.

Recommendation: The Office of the Ombudsman recommends that JAWS, with the assistance of the New Zealand High Commission, facilitate training for all its members in the appropriate reporting of suicide.

This week has been a difficult week for the fa’afafine community, the staff of the Samoa Observer and indeed for the country. However, it must be remembered that it is the people who were closest to Jeanine that have had to endure the worst. The Office would like to offer its condolences to Jeanine’s family and friends as they grieve for the loss of their loved one. Our thoughts and prayers are with you as you go through this difficult time.

Statement from Samoa’s Office of the Ombudsman published in the Samoa Observer.

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