Interesting case of freedom of speech in Samoa

Dear Editor,

Freedom of speech in the context of modern democratic societies is complex and convoluted. And it has become more so with the advent of the Internet.

In Samoa, we should not be surprised at how vague the freedom of speech concept is because of the country’s fledgling political experiment with democracy. 

The two seem to be strange bedfellows thus far, to say the least. 

Metaphorically speaking, Samoa’s traditional socio-political system is a square peg trying to dovetail into the round hole of democracy. Compounded by the divisiveness, stubbornness, reluctance - and sometimes defiance - of the present government to yield and conform to some of the democratic principles, the results have been less than compliant and/or favorable. It is disappointing and disheartening especially when one of the country’s main political goals is that of becoming a more democratic society. 

The clashes between Samoa’s traditional political system and its modern counterpart have been well documented through the years. 

We therefore should be tolerant and patient with Samoa’s shortcomings and struggles in the process. She however has been making some important strides and headway in this seemingly inevitable challenge, but there’s still a lot more that needs to be done.

Freedom of speech in the article tends to focus more, if not exclusively on oral speech, and the right to express oneself within a more traditional authoritarian and despotic village setting and environment. Samoa, still largely an unsophisticated and rudimentary society, politically (at least in the villages), has not yet acquired the more advanced and modern applications of the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech includes expressions of different kinds, not just oral speech. In fact it even includes not speaking at all especially while in protest of something. It also covers the creation and dissemination of information.

There is a bigger irony however.

Contrary to what we have come to believe through a more modern lense, Samoa’s traditional system has always had - and allowed - freedom of speech. Yes. In fact a lot freer than we thought; albeit more arbitrarily than by invocation of contemporary individual rights. Though some of this traditional freedom was/is regulated, by the village councils mostly, much of it was/is not.

With regards to oral speech, traditional freedom of speech was/is maintained via the chiefly rank relations (va to’oto’o) and status quo, often propelled by the expression “O Samoa ua uma ona tofi” (Samoa has been classified). 

Adherence to these protocols would deter or discourage anyone from speaking out of turn, or spew any slanderous remarks or comments. Moreover, chiefs are the spokespersons for the family, village or other individuals. This social order helps keeps freedom of speech, notably among the common people, in check and under control; it also indirectly discourages and/or limits free speech, unfortunately.

Notwithstanding, however, it’s Samoa’s traditional culture of violence and contention that freedom of speech thrives unabridged and unbridled. Included in the above “cultures” or behaviors are words and speeches that are taunting, incendiary, provocative, threatening, inciting, etc. Obscenities, offensive actions and expressions such as sigo (mooning), faaumu (incitive whoop) are freely demonstrated often without retribution in most cases. During feuds and contentions between families and individuals, hate speeches also are freely exchanged and retaliated.

Ironically, in most democratic countries, today, many if not all of the above are illegal and punishable by law, as having fallen under disorderly conduct or other criminal acts and violations.

Samoans need to understand that restrictions on certain speeches, expressions and rights are intrinsically linked as parts of the convoluted and more comprehensive freedom of speech. In other words, certain “freedoms of expression” enjoyed in the traditional system may already be restricted and illegal in today’s democratic system.


LV Letalu

Utah and Lalomanu

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