Samoa | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 1999

1999 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Samoa’s civil liberties changed from 3 to 2 as a result of the government’s commitment to battle corruption, and the outcome of a political assassination trial, which could lead to an official abolition of the death penalty in Samoa.


In July, Luagalau Levaula Kamu, the public works minister, was assassinated at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the ruling party in the capital, Apia.  This was the first political killing in Samoa since the islands gained independence from New Zealand in 1962.  The murder is said to be due to Levaula’s determination to stamp out corruption under the new administration of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.  The prime minister insisted that the anticorruption drive will continue.

Eletise Leafa Vitale, son of the minister for women’s affairs, pleaded guilty to the killing and was given the death sentence.  Toi Aukuso, Levaula’s predecessor, and women’s affairs minister Leafa Vitale were also charged with conspiracy to commit murder and will stand trial. Although Samoa has retained the death penalty, it has never been carried out in this predominantly Christian country, and the Levaula family has spoken out against the execution of Eletise.  All this has sparked a debate on maintaining the death penalty.

In an effort to curb violence, the government announced a gun amnesty in August to allow owners of illegal firearms one month to surrender them.

Samoa formally changed its name from Western Samoa in July 1998.  The country consists of two volcanic islands and several minor islets located west of American Samoa in the south central Pacific.  In 1899, the United States annexed Eastern (American) Samoa, while the Western Samoan islands became a German protectorate.  New Zealand occupied Western Samoa during World War II and acquired subsequent control of the territory under first a League of Nations and later a United Nations mandate.  A new constitution was adopted in 1960, and on January 1, 1962, Western Samoa became the first Pacific state to achieve independence

The ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has won a plurality in all five elections since 1982.  At the first direct elections in 1991, Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana won a third term after the HRPP secured 30 of the 47 parliamentary seats.  In the April 1996 elections, the HRPP won just 22 seats; the Samoan National Development Party (SNDP), 13; and independents, 14.  Several independents joined the HRPP, and in May, parliament reelected Tofilau as prime minister over SNDP’s Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Under Tofilau’s leadership, Samoa experienced an extended period of economic growth, and he expanded democracy by extending voting rights from only the matai (chiefs) to other citizens.  However, corruption was widespread.  In 1994, the country’s chief auditor found half of the cabinet guilty of corrupt practices, but Tofilau only issued a public rebuke.  Tofilau, ill with cancer, resigned on November 23, 1998 after 16 years as prime minister and he was replaced by Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who had served as deputy prime minister and finance minister.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Samoans can change their governments democratically.  The1960 constitution combines parliamentary democracy with traditional authority.  However, until 1991, only the 25,000 matai, or chiefs of extended families, could sit in the unicameral parliament, Fono Aoao Faitulafono, and only two seats were reserved for citizens of non-Samoan descent.  In a 1990 referendum, voters narrowly approved universal suffrage for parliament and increased the term from three to five years.  The head of state is traditionally drawn from the four paramount chiefs and has the duty to appoint the prime minister and approve legislation.  Susuga MalietoaTanumafili II is the head of state for life, but his successors will be elected by parliament for five-year terms.  In rural areas, the government has limited influence, and the 360 village councils, or fonos, are the main authority.  Several formal political parties exist, but the political process is defined more by individual personalities than strict party affiliation.

In 1998, the government imposed stringent restrictions on press freedom.  In April 1998, Samoan journalists were ordered not to report on the proceedings of a Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance of a police file indicating that Prime Minister Tofilau was convicted in 1996 and fined on two counts of theft.  On May 15, the government ruled to make public funds available to finance defamation suits by high-ranking government officials.

The Samoa Observer, the independent newspaper, has faced several lawsuits brought by government officials and business leaders over stories it has published of growing corruption and abuse of public office in Samoa.  Moreover, the paper’s printing plant was burned down under suspicious circumstances, the editor was assaulted by relatives of a government minister, advertising was withdrawn, and the prime minister threatened to pass a law canceling the paper’s business license.

The state-owned broadcast media, consisting of the country’s only television station and Radio 2AP, are heavily government-controlled and restrict air time to opposition leaders.  There are two private radio stations, and satellite television is available in parts of the capital city.  Several Samoan-language newspapers and two English-language papers are published on a regular basis. 

The matai often choose the religious denomination of their extended family in this predominantly Christian country, and there is strong societal pressure to support church leaders and projects financially.  The government generally respects the right of assembly.  There are two independent trade unions, plus the Public Service Association, which represents government workers.  Strikes are legal, but infrequent.  Collective bargaining is practiced mainly in the public sector.

The judiciary is independent, and defendants receive fair trials.  However, many civil and criminal matters are handled by village fonos according to traditional law.  The 1990 Village Fono Law provides some right of appeal in such cases to the Lands and Titles Courts and to the Supreme Court.  Village fonos occasionally order houses burned, persons banned from villages, and other harsh punishments.  In October 1998, five men reportedly were hog-tied, their homes were destroyed, and they were banished from the village for conducting a non-Methodist service in their village.  The police force is under civilian control, but its impact is limited mostly to the capital city, while fonos generally enforce security measures in the rest of the country.

Domestic violence is not uncommon.  Traditional norms discourage women from going to the police or the courts for protection, and pro-active government measures are insufficient.  Women are discriminated against in employment and underrepresented in politics.  The church is a powerful force in Samoan society.  Some clerics have become more willing to speak out in the fight against AIDS, such as supporting the use of condoms.  Although the numbers of HIV infections and AIDS cases are still low, AIDS and HIV are increasingly recognized by Samoans as a public health threat.