The first time I truly met Gatoaitele Savea Sano Malifa, I was 19.
I walked into his office for an interview to be a journalist for his newspaper.
“Do you know what I liked about your one page application to the reporter vacancy?” he asked. I said no but was sure he would tell me.
“There’s no bull***t,” he said. And that sentence encompassed in it his approach to life and to the craft of journalism.
I worked for Samoa Observer for two years alongside Mata’afa Keni Lesa who is now the Editor of Samoa Observer, Faimalo Matthew Lemisio who is now the Electoral Commissioner, Gerard Williams who is now the head of Datec in Samoa and Tupuola Terry Tavita, former Editor of Savali and Advisor to the Prime Minister who now resides in New Zealand.
At that time, Savea was our Editor and Afamasaga Toleafoa was Deputy.
There is no journalism class or lecture that will teach you the things that an editorial meeting with Savea teaches you in an hour.
His no-nonsense approach to news gathering was both brutal and informative. We would walk into the editorial meeting braced to be taught a lesson or five about our pathetic pitches or missed opportunities the day before.
We would receive both scathing and constructive feedback on our previous work. His history, craft and absolute pursuit of truth was inspiring and made every utter of discontent from him – a valuable lesson on fine tuning ones nose for news and perfecting ones craft.
His quiet grin, a sign that he was pleased by your work, was enough to make all of us collectively happy for a week.
I was impressed by the way he and Muliaga Jean Malifa ran the operation then, making changes at a drop of a hat to respond to reader demand and ensuring that there was no compromise to the content. Samoa Observer is now one of the most well equipped and advanced newspaper operations in the Pacific islands.
Working at Samoa Observer under Savea instilled in me a sense of absolute appreciation for news, for the role of the fourth estate in democracy, and the importance of journalistic integrity and standards in upholding the truth.
There is an unspoken agreement among local journalists, that anyone who survived the editorial direction and leadership of Savea – is not only tough as nails, respected and quietly applauded, but also admired for the fact they learned from the best.
Samoa Observer has contributed in many ways to strengthening our democracy and to providing the necessary checks and balances needed in any governing structure. It is not perfect and it is not without errs or obstacles. It has been burnt to the ground, Savea has been punched in the face and families have been harassed and abused as a result of truth pursuit.
But as Mataeliga Pio Sioa, Editor in Chief of the only other private print media in Samoa noted in his editorial: “To survive this long in Samoa as an independent newspaper is all about perseverance and hard-headed resolve.”
Friday night’s celebration of the 40th was testament to the true value of our only daily to Samoa’s journey as a young democratic nation. The presence of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition, diplomatic corp, business community and community leaders spoke volumes to the impact that Samoa Observer has had on our small island state.
The event was epic in many respects, but perhaps something that many did not notice that I definitely smiled at, was that the event, for the first time in my own account of media history in Samoa – all the heads of local media were under one roof, smiling and celebrating together.
That, to me, is more telling of the pioneering role of Samoa Observer in the media industry than anything else. TV1, TV3, Newsline, Savali, Talamua, Radio Polynesia and 2AP were all smiling and celebrating together. That is a monumental feat.
So thank you Samoa Observer for continuing to fight the good fight and for persevering amid adversity. Thank you Gatoaitele Savea Sano and Muliaga Jean Malifa for the legacy that is Samoa Observer.
It has made a tremendous difference in my life, and what anchored by passion for news – it inspired my journey that lead me to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, work for the International Federation of Journalists and report for some of the leading news forces in the world. That grounding gave me the confidence to contribute to The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Al Jazeera, AFP and Huffington Post. It has and will continue to provide a source of ground truthing for my work, no matter the field and no matter the reach.
It is most fitting then, to end with the words of Savea, a freedom hero and a true survivor of our times –
“When this is all over I’ll make it up to you, we’ll sit down and talk, as normal people do.
Evasiveness and half-truths will be a thing of the past,
This is a promise I’m making to you.” - Savea Sano Malifa