The daily Samoa Observer newspaper was questioned in the Supreme Court on Friday about its vetting practices for publishing Letters to the Editor (LTE).
The practice was brought up in a defamation case that strikes at the core of editorial oversight concerning public opinions sent online to the newsrooms.
The questioning occurred in a hearing of a $700,000 lawsuit against the newspaper filed by Rev. Opapo Soanai Oeti and his daughter Toaipuapuga Patrick, the woman at the centre of the stigmata controversy of 2017.
Presiding over the case is Supreme Court Justice Mata Tuatagaloa.
The lawsuit targets the publication of an LTE titled “Stop this madness” written by someone using a pseudonym, the initials M.R., according to a statement published in the Samoa Observer yesterday. The letter was printed on 29 March, 2017.
The plaintiffs claim the letter the Samoa Observer published was defamatory and a similar piece was posted on the Ole Palemia (OLP) blog.
M.R. wrote that Rev. Opapo is “sick in the head” and called on the police to move in and ask for D.N.A. tests in relation to Toaipuapuaga and the stigmata issue.
The Observer, on 31 March 2017, published a retraction that included an apology signed by the newspaper’s Editor Mata’afa Keni Lesa.
Mata’afa stood as the lone witness for the Observer on Friday.
Publisher of the Samoa Observer, Muliaga Jean Ash Malifa, and her husband, Editor-In-Chief Gatoaitele Savea Sano Malifa, were present in the courtroom.
Mata’afa strongly refutes the plaintiffs’ claims and told the court the Observer must not be held accountable for the hurtful opinions published by OLP.
Asked if the OLP blog is “news”, Mata’afa said it is not, it is a “gossip blog.”
“As far as I’m concerned OLP is not a legitimate news organization. It’s a gossip blog,” he said.
The letter from M.R. was received through the Observer’s Web site as an online comment, the editor said.
“In this day and age, we take an email address as sufficient for the identity of a person,” Mata’afa told the court.
Justice Tuatagaloa asked Mata’afa to explain how the Observer’s online letters are vetted.
“Is your vetting process in terms of letters to be published, in printing and online the same? What’s the process in terms of trying to find out the identity of the person behind the pseudonym?,” Tuatagaloa asked.
Mata’afa replied that when he started at the Observer people used to mail in letters and drop letters off at the office but later on email addresses became a vetting process.
Between 2017 and 2019, “things have changed,” and people can create fake emails, he pointed out.
Comments published on sobserver.ws are subject to moderation, meaning they are edited by Mata’afa or the other editors.
When the M.R. letter was published by the Observer, Mata’afa did not know what was happening or what was being said on the OLP blog at the time about the stigmata issue.
Two days after the M.R. letter was published in the Observer, the newspaper published a retraction. The retraction was done after the editor became aware of what was being said on the OLP blog.
He said the opinions section offers readers and members of the public an opportunity to express their opinions about matters of public interest and feedback to stories that are relevant and topical at the time.
Rev. Opapo testified that back in 2017, his children called him crying, informing him about the letter signed by M.R. in the Observer.
The contents of the letter, in combination with damaging statements posted on the OLP blurb, brought his family great shame, Rev. Opapo said.
Between March 2017 and May 2017, he said “problems” stemming from the statements published by the Observer and OLP grew.
In reference to the letter by M.R., Rev. Opapo said nothing is wrong with his brain or his health.
“This brought grave embarrassment to me and to my family,” he said.
“It greatly affected my children and some are outside studying on scholarships. People lost faith in me and my daughter Toa.”
The letter was a catalyst in his removal from the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (EFKS) by Church Elders, Rev. Opapo said.
He was removed from the Church in 2017 when he was serving in Si’ufaga but was reinstated during the annual EFKS Fono held in May 2018.
The reverend’s daughter Toaipuapuaga filed an affidavit but was not questioned during the hearing. She and her husband are currently residing in Moamoa, training to serve in the Catholic Church.
Rev. Opapo and his daughter are seeking general damages of $400,000, aggravated damages of $200,000 and punitive damages of $100,000 and costs.
Representing the plaintiffs is Muriel Lui and representing the defendant is Su’a Hellene Wallwork.
Closing submissions will be made 10 a.m. on 20 March 2019.