Sunday, January 31, 2010

Shock and Resilience in Samoa

By Jon Stephenson of Dart Centre

Dart Centre Australasia Managing Director Cait McMahon conducts a post-tsunami debriefing with staff from a Samoan television station in Apia, the country's capital. Many Samoan journalists experienced scenes of death and devastation in the immediate aftermath of the September, 2009 tsunami, which took 149 lives and destroyed more than 20 villages. Photo: Jon Stephenson
Mata’afa Kene Lesa woke up in heaven Sept. 19 and found himself in hell. When a tsunami struck Upolu, one of Western Samoa’s two main islands, Lesa – the editor of Samoa Observer – was one of the first local journalists to respond, racing to the affected area to be met by scenes of death and devastation.
“We were there within 40 minutes,” Lesa says. “The images were just graphic.”
Reporters accustomed to covering nothing more dramatic than sporting events, political infighting or a late-night brawl were suddenly confronted with disaster on a scale they could scarcely have imagined.
“We’re used to thinking about Samoa as paradise,” says Lesa, “and to go from paradise to complete chaos just like that is something we’ll never forget.”
More than 20 villages lay battered and bruised, with dozens of Samoans dead, missing or injured. The death toll would eventually climb to 149.
It hardly needs stating that the numbers tell only part of the story, giving little sense of the impact this tragedy has had in Samoa – a close-knit society with a population of just 180,000.
“I don’t suppose there is a person in Samoa who hasn’t lost relatives,” says Russell Hunter, one of Lesa’s colleagues at the Observer.
The extent of the tsunami’s impact on Samoans was much in evidence when Dart Centre Australasia Managing Director Cait McMahon and I arrived in Samoa’s capital, Apia, three weeks after the disaster, at the invitation of the Journalists’ Association of Western Samoa (JAWS) in collaboration with the Dart Centre Australasia and the International Federation of Journalists.
Coming from Australia and New Zealand respectively, each of us had already seen coverage in our own media portraying the sense of shock and loss Samoans were experiencing. However, seeing the destruction up close and hearing first-hand accounts of the disaster was more directly and deeply moving.
Local journalists have been especially hard hit. Like their fellow Samoans – emergency workers, in particular – they’ve witnessed some ghastly scenes. Some lost friends or relatives; others played a direct role in the recovery of bodies – in several cases, transporting those bodies to makeshift morgues.
Unlike their compatriots, they then had to report for days and weeks on the tsunami and its aftermath – an exhausting and unsettling experience, not least for the younger reporters.
During our four-day visit, organized by JAWS secretary Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, Cait and I focused first and foremost on listening to our Samoan colleagues – learning something of what they have lived through, and the personal as well as professional challenges they have faced as a result.
We also offered suggestions: Cait on techniques for dealing with physical and psychological responses to trauma; I on ideas and techniques for trauma reporting.
The emphasis on “suggestions” was important for both of us. Having been invited into someone else’s living room, we did not want to be seen as instructing our hosts on how to re-arrange their furniture.
Cait and I were mindful we were dealing with trauma issues in a Samoan rather than Western cultural context. One-on-one counseling, or “therapy,” for instance, is more widely practiced in the West than it is in Samoa, where close family and community ties can help foster effective peer-support.
We were also mindful of the fact that some Western journalists had set less-than-stellar examples of sensitive and compassionate reporting in their coverage of the tsunami. One international journalist, who interviewed a Samoan worker at length about the damage to his resort, failed to ask about the man’s personal welfare.
If she had done so, she would have learned that he’d just lost several members of his immediate family.
On the whole, however, the Samoan community felt that international journalists as well as local reporters had done an excellent job under difficult circumstances. This was acknowledged in a speech of thanks by Samoa’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi.
There was tremendous gratitude, too, for the efforts of Australian and New Zealand defence force personnel, who delivered much-needed relief supplies to Samoans. And as is often the case with disasters, there were also uplifting accounts of quiet courage and resilience on the part of locals – qualities that will be in great demand in the days ahead.
Cait and I left Samoa with a clear impression of the pain and dislocation left in the tsunami’s wake, but humbled and encouraged by our colleagues’ strength and their commitment to healing themselves and their nation. As one reporter told us: “There is still a lot of shock and confusion, but there’s an emerging desire to move on and rebuild."

Post Tsunami Samoa Editors’ Forum - PM Address

This week (Nov 2009) in Samoa, the Pacific Media Human Rights Project held a Post-Tsunami Samoa Editors’ Forum with Samoa’s leading journalists. Below is the speech delivered by Samoa’s Prime Minister Sailele Malielegaoi Tuilaepa on why he supports the set up of a Media Council for Samoa. We have also included here a post published by Journalists Association of (Western)Samoa (JAWS) on this issue. They debate their differences and disagreement on this issue.

Post Tsunami Samoa Editor’s Forum
Prime Minister’s Remarks
Tuilaepa Sailele Lupesoliai Malielegaoi
Tuesday, 17 November – Aggie Grey’s Conference Room
Thank you for inviting me to your Post Tsunami Samoa Editors Forum particularly in view of the vigorous media reaction to my comments on the quality of the media’s reporting of developments in the aftermath of the Tsunami.
In May this year at a function to Commemorate Media Freedom Day, which also included participants from around the region to a seminar organised jointly by UNESCO and the International Federation of Journalist, I had also made a special plea for the media to improve and maintain high reporting standards.
Let me say again that there is no question about the importance to our societies of a media that is able to report news in complete freedom, express opinions and make criticisms without fear of repression. The media’s power to influence public perceptions is a powerful force and is precisely the reason why the media must also accept and observe the great responsibility of ensuring balanced and fair reporting of news and stories.
This is the context of why I kept reminding our media over the weeks following the Tsunami of the importance of maintaining standards of reporting by ensuring that you do not rely on rumours and hearsay but to go and see personally whether a version provided to the reporter is credible, find out what is in fact the widely held view and then report accordingly.
In a sensitive and highly charged situation, such as in the aftermath of the Tsunami, it becomes even more important that the reporter feels assured that the media story is balanced and presents a full picture of what is going on. I do not need to remind on the key roles of the editor and publisher in this process.
I know that there must be heavy pressures of running a media outlet to meet timelines and in achieving the bottom line of making money to operate the business. I recall that not so long ago a well known reporter of New Zealand’s TV One (Barbara Dreaver) was criticised even by some of our media here of sloppy reporting. In that case where it was felt that media standards were violated, there is a Media Council and Tribunal for New Zealand where complaints could be lodged. Indeed that is where complaints have been referred to after that incident. There is nothing similar in Samoa and is why I keep asking leaders in Samoa’s media to do something to help enforce standards. I recall discussing this very concept of a Council with representatives of the media over 5 years ago. My impression then was that you were extremely anxious to go ahead with it as part of the reforms you wanted to do to improve media reporting. For these reasons, I have always supported requests of JAWS to have media workshops and media conferences in Samoa. I also always accept invitations to the JAWS organised events where I can make directly my views, as I am again now making, in the interests of encouraging good standards in media reporting.
One of the important reasons for my perennial reminders on good standards is that if media stories Post Tsunami are not properly collaborated or for some reason are deliberately biased, these can cause much harm to how we are perceived by people of other countries who by and large rely on media reports to form a picture of our country and people.
As I have said before and on countless previous occasions, constructive criticism from the media is indispensable for the development of society. The insidious danger to guard against is when journalists become careless, and worse become egotistical and self-righteous in believing that every opinion they present must be good and right for society because “they have said it”.
My final point which I have also made in remarks I made before in other JAWS events, and are also relevant in the post Tsunami period, is the importance in my view of the media making a more conscious effort to focus on positive stories rather than the often heavy diet of negative ones that the media tends to revert to in daily offerings. A bombardment of negativity can easily sap morale as the people begin to question whether anything good at all is happening in their community.
Finally, I want to let you know that we are doing our best, as we had done from the time of the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami, to help those affected. A great deal has been done and a lot more is being done and will be done in terms of recovery and reconstruction of the areas that were devastated. There is also a strategy to relocate people to higher ground for safety not just in preparation for another Tsunami, but as part of a more general adaptation programme in anticipation of climate change and sea level rise.
Since the Tsunami and in the period ahead, Samoa has worked closely with our international developmental partners and non-government organisations who also have members participating in meetings of the National Disaster Council and Advisory Committee. The participation in the Council and Committee of representative of foreign governments and International organisations including NGOs like the Red Cross provide an effective mechanism for checks and balance against any abuses in the distribution and use of assistance received. As it happened, a negative media report based on hearsay was corrected by overseas volunteers who were part of the distribution teams and whose organisations are members of the Council and Committee. Besides the Council and Committee meetings, there are also separate coordination meetings between major donors and the government. This is the bigger picture that the media seems to miss from time to time.
I do not know whether I will again cop another dose of scathing criticism from the media for my comments this morning. If that happens, I can only comfort myself in the knowledge that the media in a roundabout way has my best interests at heart by acting as my publicity agents!!!
Jokes aside, I want to end my remarks to again encourage you to establish a Media Council to oversee standards even if I get blamed when I do so as being dictatorial and often referred to in some very expressive metaphors from my critics. That is media freedom.
This is the freedom of the media in our country and some of you have won several international awards over it. Even JAWS in its wisdom considered my contribution to ‘the cause’ of media freedom to merit the Award that sits prominently in my office.
I thank you again for inviting me and wish you a successful discussion for the remainder of your Forum.

(The report courtesy of Pacific Eye Witness)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Post-Tsunami Editors Forum

You are invited to take part in the Post-Tsunami Editors Forum on the 17th of November 2009, hosted by the Pacific Media Human Rights Project, an initiative of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.
The Post Tsunami Editors Forum will bring together heads of newsrooms from across Samoa to share their experiences about their coverage of the 29.09.2009 tsunami. Sponsored by the Pacific Media Human Rights Project, the Forum will also look at the views of Editors in regards to the future of disaster reporting in Samoa.
We would appreciate your time to be part of this Forum, to present a 5-10 minute paper on your experience in reporting about the tsunami. We would appreciate your reflections, advice or encouragement in regards to what you have been through. We understand that this was a hard time for the Samoan media and the forum will provide a chance to discuss amongst peers, lessons learnt from the coverage of the tsunami.
The event will take place at the Aggie Greys Conference Room at 10am on the 17th of November 2009.
Contact 777 3776 or for more information.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Environment Weekly launched

APIA - The first specialised publication on environment news has been launched in Samoa.
Environment Weekly was launched in August, and has been featured widely in international newswires and agencies.
Founded by Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, the publication has covered important environmental issues in Samoa including climate change and biodiversity.
Environment Weekly also known as ENWIK or EW is available online at and is published every Friday and available in the usual newsprint distributing stores. The print version can also be viewed online.