General Journalism Projects in Samoa by Lorraine Bowan
Australian volunteer Lorraine Bowan undertook a 4-week journalism project, working at the Samoa Observer. Below she reflects on her time abroad and gives an insight into what being a journalism volunteer in Samoa is all about.
Brief overview and tips for other volunteers
The working day started shortly after 8 am with a meeting of reporters and the editor, Mataafa Keni Lesa, during which he asked each in turn what they had that was new and what they were following up. He would decide what jobs to send people on and then, shortly afterwards, we would leave the office (which is in a business area outside center of Apia) and be driven to our various jobs by the driver. (TIP It is important to get the driver’s number so you can phone him to be picked up later.)
I went to court often as I had requested to do this in my application in line with my university degree in human rights law. (TIP Volunteers should wear office clothes for this placement – knee length skirts and blouses that have sleeves and no cleavage showing. No shorts. You can wear flip-flops as a concession to casual dress.)
Proceedings are nominally in English but charges are usually read in Samoan and most of the cross-examination is in Samoan with no translation. (TIP: It is helpful to take a photo with your phone of the court lists pinned to the door of the court so at least you have the names of the parties.) I got around this by interviewing parties or their lawyers after court. I also approached the Registrar to get copies of court documents or to be allowed to read the file and was fobbed off or refused on most occasions. Only through persistence was I able to obtain one statement of claim, which the Registrar did not give me until the day before my placement ended. The main difference then is that in Samoa, court documents that are supposed to be on the public record are very difficult to access.
It is useful to read some cases from the Pacific Legal Information site PACLII before you leave because when I was there, in country, I found I could not access the Samoan cases, only those from American Samoa. (??) (TIP -The most interesting legal issue is litigation over land, most of which is held under customary title so some pre-reading about the Matai system and customary land title is useful.) Not all Acts are available online but they can be bought from the legislative assembly building opposite the courts. I bought the Customary Land Title Act for around 60 tala. Bills before Parliament are not made public. A good example of the kind of land and titles disputes that arise is Letoa v Attorney General  WSSC 42 (1 August 2014) which you can read on the PACLII site http://www.paclii.org/ws/cases/WSSC/2014/42.html
You cannot record court sessions but you can take photographs inside the court while the court is in recess and the judge is not there. (TIP bring your own camera so you are independent) It is very helpful to record interviews – TIP Bring a voice recorder. It took me three weeks to find a shop that sold spiral notebooks so TIP bring one of them too.
After court or the on-site job, try to get back to the office quickly because there is little time before the deadline arrives and as a foreigner, you have to look up more things than a local. (TIP double check spelling of all place and people’s names – they are long and difficult. Also matais are referred to by title, for example Chief Justice, His Honour Patu Tiava'asue Falefatu Sapolu is referred to as Judge Patu which looks like his first name to us but I found out after getting this wrong, it’s his matai title so he is not called Judge Sapolu).
Apply the standard journalist approach to structuring a story and make sure you have a picture for every story. There is not a separate photography section – you do your own photography. (TIP - make sure to get the people’s names for the caption at the time.)
You need to bring your own laptop and you upload your story to the server yourself so you need to be good at navigating your way around this process.
When your work is done, you are free to go home from about 4.00pm. I usually stayed until 5 or 6 pm because I worked hard on my stories and wanted to get them right. The office stays open until late so it is possible to do this. Also stayed later sometimes to do personal online things like banking and email because there is no internet access at home-stays.
I also found it hard that at the home-stay, I could not watch any news on TV or hear it on radio so I was ignorant of what was happening – not a good situation for a reporter! Much local media is understandably in Samoan.
My Pieces Published
- Brian’s white Sunday miracle (front page photo) 3/10/2014
- Church’s $15 million building takes shape (photo) 3/10/2014
- Sailing ship visit highlights Samoa’s maritime importance 4/10/2014
- Court highlights other ways to end a dispute 8/10/2014
- Who is protecting our human rights? 11/10/2014
- Supreme court upholds human rights 12/10 2014
- SPREP director announces new Environment Initiatives 14/10/2014
- Oosterdam dwarfs Apia’s buildings 15/10/2014
- Samoa Police praised for rescue of disabled ketch 15/10/2014
- Seabreeze bringing trophy home 16/10/2014
- Asian exchange for Samoan youth red cross volunteers17/10/2014
- Fans embrace their Toa Samoa in Apia 17/10/2014
- Ebola fear quashed (front page) 18/10/2014
- $20 million dream resort realized (photo) 18/10/2014
- Arrivals drop but receipts increase (photo) 18/10/2014
- Fans rub shoulders with their idols 18/10/2014
- Palolo sold for $600 to $1000 (photo) 20/10/2014
- Lawsuit raises complex legal questions 21/10/2014
- $5 million lawsuit against SLC adjourned 21/10/2014
- PM and minister for tourism applauds Return to Paradise (2 page photo spread) 21/10/2014
- Passing of legendary Aussie felt in Samoa 22/10/2014
- Ministry of health launches complaints policy 23/10/2014
- The long road to Mount Vaea 26/10/2014
- $1 million lawsuit 2/11/2014
I found the staff at the Observer to be very welcoming and supportive. I tried not to ask questions of the reporters when they were typing rapidly to meet deadlines but I did ask them questions in the mornings on the way to jobs. They were great at answering my questions and filling me in with the Samoan way. Other office staff including the receptionist, IT support, layout and drivers were all fantastic and friendly and supportive.
A special tribute is fitting here to Mataafa who was very patient with me and considerate of my position as an outsider who was essentially clueless! I appreciated his guidance and could see the high standards he expected and inspired among his staff. I was also conscious of the paper’s vulnerability as there was clearly political antipathy from a government that was used to meeting little influential opposition. I was always very circumspect in any conversation with members of the public or other reporters, not giving anything away about the Observer. I feel if I had had more than 20 days at the Observer, I would have become better at the job and would like to have got to know people better and leant from them. As it is I am very happy with my experience and the happy interactions with all the staff.
Having had prior experience in human rights internships in West Africa, I was conscious of the opportunity to contribute to capacity building in some small way. As a native English speaker, English graduate and senior secondary English teacher with experience, I was happy when Mataafa asked me to contribute some form of English language resource for the staff, many of whom speak English as their second language and therefore could benefit from some advanced language resource. I read carefully the drafts of stories submitted for editing and made a list of the categories of grammatical and syntax errors that were being made. I created a PowerPoint presentation which I didn’t have time to go through with staff but which could work as a self-directed learning tool. I embedded links to helpful websites as an extra jump-off point of interest.
My law background meant that I had a legal context for understanding what was happening and what legal issues underscored the things said in court. I prepared some background notes on the constitutional and statutory references in the complex civil action against the president of the Land and Titles Court and emailed it to the reporter who would take over the story.
I would recommend the placement at the Samoa Observer to anyone studying journalism or law as being a fantastic learning and work experience opportunity.