Democracy without freedom of speech?
Living in modern day Samoa can leave one scratching one’s head sometimes.
Samoa describes itself as being a democratic nation with strong attachments to the Samoan way of life (fa’asamoa) but when the fa’asamoa gets in the way of freedom of speech, then can we still call ourselves a democracy?
When a villager speaks out, and more often than not they are fined by the village council, is it because there is no freedom of speech or is it just a good way of making quick cash in the form of fines?
According to the N.U.S. Samoan Studies Centre Director, Leasiolagi Dr.Malama Meleisea, “I think that freedom of speech is a very significant part of democracy although some people have opted to say that fa’asamoa and freedom of speech are conflicting,” he told the Samoa Observer.
“I think that we have accepted democracy as a form of government and identity and I think everybody should have the right to express their opinion wherever and about whatever.”
According to Leasiolagi the system should encourage freedom of speech as much as possible but it’s hard to have both the fa’asamoa and democracy when they sometimes contradict one another.
“There is of course a practice that has become a principle; whenever a matai makes a decision, then the people should listen to that,” he said.
“Whatever people may say when the Council meets in the villages, however often they meet, the decision is made by the Council and the others listen in.The practice is that once that decision is made then they follow it.
“I know the government has been trying to say through some of the traditional reviews through the Office of the Pulenu’u, Ministry of Women and Community development that it’s a requirement for the Council (village) to have the accused person to present his/her version before they announce any fines.
“Usually before that the Council decides (on the matter) and they don’t have to interview the people who are accused and then the family of the accused will just go and do what the Village Council wants.
“There is no situation that was allowed for the accused to give their version beforehand.”
But was Samoa always like this?
“Yes, there was just no other alternative,” Leasiolagi said.
“Traditionally that’s the way decisions were made and that’s the way decisions were implemented; it was all done at the village level.
“You can imagine 250 villages all with their own Councils and doing their own thing; initiating their own pieces of legislation or rules.
“They imposed fines on those who didn’t listen and that’s fine but now there’s another alternative. It’s an alternative in which the government has taken up in terms of political and traditional systems that we have.
“A lot of decisions nowadays over the last 40-50 years; Human Rights and Freedom of Speech have become a very strong alternative to the traditional fa’asamoa system.”
Leasiolagi also feels that in moving forward, we may have to leave some parts of the fa’asamoa behind.
“I think in every system, it doesn’t matter which country you talk about, there is change,” he said.
“Fa’asamoa has changed a lot and for people to argue now to stick to the fa’asamoa, the principles of the fa’asamoa which were established a hundred or more years ago, would not be a wise thing to do.
“So much has happened over the last hundred years. If you go back to the time when the missionaries arrived, the missionaries brought a lot of influence and the so-called traditional system that our people want to stick to, has become more and more vague.
“My personal experience is that people talk about their customs and traditions and they go ahead and do the opposite so I think it would be unwise for leaders of this country to try and stick to some of the principles which were established a hundred years ago.
“Back then, the population was very low with about 30,000 people; now we’ve got more than half a million including Samoan’s living overseas.
“We have to look at ways of accommodating the fa’asamoa into the modern day principles.”
Leasiolagi then concluded with a word of encouragement to the media.
“I think what the media is doing trying to encourage freedom of speech; I think it’s good,” he said.
“I consider it the responsibility of the media to try and push it. A lot of our people don’t like but it’s ok.”