EDITORIAL: By the Samoa Observer Editorial Board
In the past month, we have made a new pen pal: the Attorney-General of Samoa, no less, Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale.
The arrival of her latest piece of correspondence – which always takes the form of an open letter – is always the cause of much excitement in our office.
That being said, we have to ask how much of this soap opera could have been avoided.
Here is a condensed version of the story that led to these exchanges and which has been repeated several times in these pages. The Office of the Attorney-General had engaged a firm, Betham & Annandale Law, formerly Savalenoa’s, now solely her husband’s, on two ongoing projects.
Because we are journalists we asked questions about this arrangement. Specifically, we wanted to know what was the Attorney-General Office’s process for handling matters which could raise a perceived conflict of interest.
Asking questions is what journalists do. And officials in a democratic society answer them.
Our first story, on February 27 (“A.G. silent on husband’s firm”) was a good story but not a great story; it ran on page 3.
It would have almost certainly been further back if it weren’t for the utter contempt shown for this newspaper and its readers by both the Attorney-General and her husband, Lauki Jason Annandale. Both declined to answer our simple questions; the latter simply hung up the phone.
And so began the saga of our correspondence with the nation’s principal legal officer. The letters are full of mystery, outrage, spite, and self-sabotage (the Samoa Observer also wrote some rather boring questions along the way).
Something that never seems to have been apprehended by Savalenoa is that the public has a right to know what is going inside its own government.
EDITORIAL: On “hacking”: the Samoa Observer has been reporting on this nation for 43 years. The Attorney-General was appointed last July. We will stake our reputation against hers any day of the week. https://t.co/XHMIOzsVZU
— Samoa Observer (@samoaobserver) March 15, 2021
Savalenoa consistently refused to reply, except in the form of press releases written in response to our stories, written in the tone of someone who evidently does not see themselves as a public servant.
Crucially, while frequently insulting our journalists at no stage did she ever see fit to answer the question we had asked from the outset.
Perhaps Savalenoa found some sport in these exchanges – who knows? Providing a simple reply weeks ago could have ended a matter that has now blown into calls for a police investigation.
But the story kept going and growing. And not just because we refuse to let not answering questions put a stop to our work.
Our questions began after we received a 12-page draft retainer document showing her husband’s firm had been contracted to represent the government in a matter involving the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.
We then discovered that Savalenoa’s former firm had been paid to review the government’s plans to upend this country’s legal system and amend its constitution by creating an autonomous Land and Titles Court (LTC).
When asked in September last year if her former firm had been appointed to conduct this external $100,000 review of the laws she point-blank denied it to one of our reporters.
The story became curious and curiouser.
Information continued to roll in, including a variation to the review signed by the Assistant Attorney-General in November last year – well after her July appointment.
The Samoa Observer, as newspapers have done for centuries, reported on the information because it is in the interest of the Samoan people, the Attorney-General’s ultimate employers.
After we suggested to Savalenoa on our editorial page last week that the public deserved an answer to our question, our pen pal buckled.
Or perhaps erupted is a better word.
In a statement released by the Attorney-General’s Office on Saturday, we received a response to the question which we had been asking for three weeks.
The Assistant Attorney-General advised they had taken charge of all processes relating to Betham & Annandale Law engagements and the Attorney-General was removed from the discussion of all work relating to the matter.
There we had it. Simple stuff, really. But then we got a whole lot more than we had asked for.
Not for the first time, the Office commented on the “concerning” nature of our journalism.
But it was never material printed in this newspaper to which the Office of the Attorney-General raised objections.
“It is baffling then that there is an assumption the legal retainer should have been tendered,” the statement said.
We think it’s more baffling that the Samoa Observer has never once printed a suggestion that the contracts in question should have been put out to tender.
The statement continued.
“The fact that the Attorney General did not respond, that in itself [was] taken as confirmation that the Attorney General did not adhere to the [Public Service Commission] Guidelines on Managing Conflicts of Evaluation Panels,” it read.
If you’ll recall what was printed on these pages last week, we said precisely the opposite:
“Let us make this clear: we make no allegations of impropriety against Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale since her elevation to the position of Attorney-General last July.
“We believe her explanation entirely. We have never made any suggestions, inferences, or imputations to the contrary that a conflict of interest may have influenced the awarding of these contracts.”
Our issue was a question of principle, not impropriety: we believed the Attorney-General, like all public servants, should be transparent.
It strains our credulity that an office staffed with lawyers could have somehow misinterpreted the above as accusations.
But Savalenoa has previously batted away accusations that have not been made against her. She has repeatedly stated that her husband’s firm was engaged before she was made Attorney-General in July last year. This is something this newspaper has said from its very first article.
The Attorney-General’s Office went on to make an accusation of its own: that the documents we obtained for our story were the result of illegal “hacking”.
“Initial internal assessment suggests that the said documents could only have been obtained by hacking our email systems,” the statement said.
This newspaper does not nor has it ever engaged in “hacking” nor have we ever written stories based on “hacking”. This is not Fleet Street and we are not owned by Rupert Murdoch.
The very implication is not only defamatory but it provides an insight into how far the Attorney-General’s understanding of the world is separate from reality.
People have, for decades, been providing the Samoa Observer with internal Government material because they want to address a lack of transparency or believe the public should know something. Sources are people with noble motives who take risks for the sake of their moral beliefs. Material being sent to a newspaper is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a sign of a grand conspiracy; for a judicious leader it is a signal to pause to reflect.
But on the question of “hacking”, the Samoa Observer has been reporting on this nation for 43 years. The Attorney-General was appointed last July. We will stake our reputation against hers on any day of the week and let our readers decide.
The Attorney-General’s Office further called for a full-blown police investigation into the release of confidential government documents to the Samoa Observer.
This newspaper has reported on a rash of resignations from the Attorney-General’s Office during her tenure there, something she partly attributed to staff “attitude problems”.
The public relies on the Office of the Attorney-General to pursue justice in the name of the people of Samoa; having a functional office, then, is essential to Samoa’s judicial system.
Our humble advice to our pen-pal is to remember a, slightly adapted, old adage. If you run into an unpleasant person one morning then you have our sympathies. But if you find yourself running into unpleasant people all day then perhaps it might be time to reflect on your own behaviour.
Rather than pointing fingers, Savalenoa, it’s time to look in the mirror.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) expresses solidarity with journalists at the Samoa Observer who are under pressure by the Samoan government’s attempts to silence press freedoms and threats to journalists. Asia Pacific Report also expresses solidarity.