Controversy over role of Palau’s Attorney General in media

Tue, 21 Feb 2012 16:38:00 +0900

Media freedom activists around the Pacific have raised concerns that the President’s Office in Palau is restricting the media’s access to the country’s Attorney General.

It follows a new executive order stating that the Attorney General must get clearance from the President’s Office before offering her opinion on legal matters.

Local media professionals have questioned the timing of the order, which was issued shortly after they asked for clarification on how Palau’s campaign law applies to one candidate in the November elections – Senator Alfonso Diaz – using his radio show to promote his policies.

We asked Jeff Barabe, the President of Oceania Television in Palau about the concerns.

Presenter: Helene Hofman
Speakers: Jeff Barabe from Oceania Television in Palau; Lisa Williams Lahari from the International Federation of Journalists; The president of Palau’s spokesman Fermin Meriang

BARABE: It actually affects everybody but as far as we’re concerned the laws in Palau are very vague, it’s a young democracy out here, and we’re looking to establish some real regulation in the media industry regarding politics and campaigning. And I think this really prevents us from asking some important questions or getting answers perhaps till after laws have been broken.

HOFMAN: It all relates back to this case of Alfonso Diaz who’s been using his radio program to talk about his candidacy, and that was something you were concerned about. Do you think that’s why the executive order was passed, was it politically motivated in a way?

BARABE: Honestly I don’t have any way to support that one way or another. The only coincidence was the timing itself, we asked that question to the Attorney General’s office just a few weeks before this order was passed, and it’s a little unusual that the order was passed so late in this administration, less than a year before the election. So the timing’s unusual but I don’t have any real proof one way or the other.

HOFMAN: And have you managed to get any answer on Diaz’s radio program and whether it is acceptable or not?

BARABE: No and that’s the real issue is that again in a land where regulation is so sparse we don’t have any information and now we have nobody to ask to know what is correct and what’s legal and what’s not.

HOFMAN: Until now, local journalists regularly consulted the attorney general for legal advice on issues relating to news of the day.

They’re concerned that the new executive order will make it more difficult to secure that advice, and that it will take too long.

The situation has attracted the attention Pacific Freedom Forum, as well as the Pacific branch of the International Federation of Journalists.

The Solomon Islands-based media rights activist and Cook Islands journalist, Lisa Williams Lahari, explains.

LAHARI: Um, it just seems like a waste of time and resources when in the past the access from members of the public amongst the members of the media seeking a quick and professional reply on questions relating to constitutional matters, could just happen like that. And I say that because Palau is similar to the Cook Islands in that the media from small islands in a small island place where the access to experts on the constitutional rule of law, legal issues relating to government, are not thick on the ground. So that freedom of access to the office of the Crown Solicitor General or the Attorney General is so important and so critical to getting good journalism done. Now that’s a freedom of access that has been taken away from the journalists of Palau and the people of Palau. So yeah it is effectively still a gag order.

HOFMAN: The Palau President’s office has denied that the executive order is an attempt to gag the Attorney General.

The president’s spokesman Fermin Meriang says it was issued to clarify the Attorney General’s role and avoid any conflicts of interest.

MERIANG: As the President’s statement states it is not changing in any way media’s access to public information. All it does is clarify the role of the Attorney General’s office, who the office’s primary responsibility is to and anyone in government can still ask for and receive opinions from the Attorney General. This issue has been blown out of proportion because it was not intended in any way to curtail media freedom or media access to public information.

HOFMAN: Is it true that now that the media if they ever do call on the Attorney General to offer legal advice or to release a document that it will have to be approved by the President’s office first?

MERIANG: There is a general policy of the executive branch that the ministries funnel information through the office of the President, through the secretary, which is me, and that does two things, to ensure accuracy and to make sure consistency. So that has been in practice for a long time. The executive order is just in line with standard policy. To be quite honest with you Helen, this is a non-issue in Palau as much as it is outside.

HOFMAN: It does seem to me like it is an issue?

MERIANG: The local media has no problem with it.

HOFMAN: Well that’s not the case because I did speak to someone from Oceania Television who were saying that they actually did have an issue with it and they did feel like that this would affect the way that they work and they did question that perhaps maybe it was a gag order in some ways?

MERIANG: Obviously they’re all entitled to their own opinions but we certainly don’t feel that that’s the case. I’m at a loss to explain this, I just don’t think it really is going to do what people say it’s going to do.

The statement from the President’s Office adds that the Executive Order does not bans the Attorney General from releasing any public information.


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