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Media council “basically” independent - A.G.

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Officials from the office of the Attorney General met with media representatives yesterday to go over a draft bill that will see the country’s only journalism association become a public body.

Under the draft, government will incorporate the journalist’s body into the proposed Media Council Act 2014.

In an email response to Samoa Observer questions, Attorney General Aumua Ming Leung Wai said the law will make the Journalists Association of (Western) Samoa (J.A.W.S.) “basically independent” from government. J.A.W.S. was founded in 1991 as a completely independent body to “develop and maintain freedom of information and expression.” Government continues to recognise the former association and its former executive, despite it being deregistered last year.

“Whilst J.A.W.S. has been de-registered, it appears that its members are still active,” Aumua said. “As evident in the meeting it had last year where its members got together to discuss the initial draft Bill.

“Following that meeting, several other meetings between the representatives of J.A.W.S. and my office have taken place.”

He said that it was in one of those meetings that it was discussed that J.A.W.S. be created as an Act of Parliament like other organisations such as the Law Society or the Accounting Society.

“Plans are also in the pipeline to do the same for the Plumbers Association – see Plumbers Bill 2013 that was tabled last year in Parliament,” he said.

“This is the reason why the latest draft Bill contains provisions setting up an association to be also called J.A.W.S.

“As for the name, the representatives of J.A.W.S. wanted the name J.A.W.S. to remain. “Whilst the new J.A.W.S. is to be set up by an Act of Parliament, you would note from the provisions that it is basically independent from Government in terms of its operations and membership.”

He said this set up was similar to that of the Law Society, the Samoa Institute of Accountants and the proposed Plumbers Association.

“We have been hoping for this Bill to go to Parliament this month but this is not possible because consultations are not yet complete.

“Please note that the Bill is still in draft form and I would welcome any comments (or) suggestions to improve it before it is finalised.”

He said yesterday’s meeting was organised for all members of the media to discuss the second draft of the legislation.The first and second drafts of the Bill show marked differences.

The first draft was a piece of legislation dealing solely with a Media Council, with no mention of J.A.W.S. The second one has J.A.W.S. taking over many of the functions the Council was assigned in the initial draft.

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This development is in marked contrast to calls from J.A.W.S. before it was deregistered in August last year. According to a R.N.Z.I. report from last September former J.A.W.S. President Uale Papali'i Taimalelagi, said the organisation would reregister in the next few months so that it could work with the government in drafting new media regulation legislation. However, a check with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour shows a folder for J.A.W.S. still stamped “deregistered”, with no other folder available.

At the time, Uale said he wrote to the Department of Labour seeking to have the organisation de-registered, because it had not completed some of the necessary paperwork over the past few years. He said he wanted to ensure the umbrella organisation for journalists was re-registered as a legal entity, with all the paperwork in place. J.A.W.S. would then be able to work with the Attorney General's office to draft the legislation, he said.

"The legislation that is about to come out from the Attorney General's office will have to come to J.A.W.S. while J.A.W.S. is a legal entity,” Uale told R.N.Z.I. “Until that legislation comes out from the Attorney General's office, J.A.W.S. will meet again and see what input it can have to the legislation before the legislation is submitted before Parliament."

Last year, the Attorney General agreed to involve J.A.W.S. in the process after the group raised concerns the government could legislate to restrict media freedoms, the radio station reported then. Despite this, the organisation still remains deregistered only to appear in the latest and final draft of the Media Council Bill 2014. J.A.W.S. being included in the legislation is a complete reversal for an organisation who originally stated it wanted the Attorney General’s office to have nothing to do with the drafting of the legislation in the first place.

The Association’s Constitution highlights that one of its objectives at the time it was set up was “to develop and maintain freedom of information and expression.” In a letter dated last year July 10 2013, the J.A.W.S. President said that the Association was now aware the Attorney General plans to be involved in drafting the legislation for a Media Council.

“This could be seen as the Government forcing the Government agenda on to our media industry,” Uale wrote in the letter published on the Talamua news website.

“The fear is that this could appear to be the Government dictating the processes and procedures that will govern and unduly restrict our freedoms as the Fourth Estate.

“We ask that our independent lawyer draft the legislation in question as this would provide an impartial and balanced approach to the law that will regulate our industry.”

Further the former President said that J.A.W.S. appreciated the Attorney General’s offer to personally draft the legislation and “are more than certain you would undertake this task in good faith, and endeavour to do so in a transparent manner.

“However, we maintain that the involvement of our independent lawyer would only lend credence to the process that we are currently facing – legislation for our media industry,” he wrote then.

“This could possibly mitigate any criticisms your office may face in terms of political interference – with this unstoppable push for legislation – in to what is customarily an autonomous industry for countries with democratic systems of government.”

Uale is also a Government Press Secretary.

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