Tupuola Terry Tavita is media advisor to the Samoan prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, and editor of Savali, the Samoan government newspaper. He’s also a barroom bruiser who’s been openly castigated by his Pacific journalist colleagues for his racist comments on industry websites. Readers of Grubsheet will be familiar with his interventions in these columns and the crude nature of his comments. So and so – usually Grubsheet – is “low-life scum”, a “farking clueless idiot”, “a fat stupid moron”, “ a poor low-life fat sod”, a “typical Fijian coward”. You get the drift. Terry also has the distinction of being the first person in these columns to tell a fellow correspondent to “F-off”.
Given this, many people find it strange that he’s so close to the seat of power in Samoa and enjoys such a special relationship with the prime minister. But Terry is fiercely loyal and any attack on Tuilaepa is met with a stream of colourful invective. He’s also evidently the author of many of the prime minister’s home-spun bon mots when attacking the regime in Fiji, such as Frank Bainimarama “ leading everyone down the cassava patch” with his promise to hold elections in 2014.
As a working journalist, Terry is held in reasonably high regard, with one close observer of the Samoan media scene describing him as “one of the region’s more talented practitioners”. He’s also a strong defender of media freedom in the Pacific, arguing that there’s no cause to modify the robust Australian and NZ journalistic model in a local setting. His critics say that doesn’t necessarily apply at home. He’s outlined the Samoan model in these columns: “Get the bloody story, get a response from government, if you can’t do that, then don’t bother coming back. he he” Mmm.
Terry’s famed belligerence is tolerated in regional media forums in the interests of regional solidarity and the celebrated “Pacific Way”. Yet his wayward behaviour is fast becoming a problem. Grubsheet has it on good authority that at the turbulent PINA summit in Vanuatu in 2009, Terry got so upset with another delegate that he threatened to kill him. Terry has denied this and has called Grubsheet “a liar” for repeating the story. But it certainly falls into a pattern of behaviour that has sorely tested the patience of his journalistic colleagues.
Like many journalists, Terry’s natural habitat is the bar. On his visits to Fiji, this exotic Samoan species has been spotted at Birdland, O’Reillys and various other Suva drinking haunts, drawing attention to himself – according to accounts on the anti-regime blog Coup 4.5 – for his keen interest in the local “birds” and readiness to buy strangers drinks. Such forays have sometimes been to Terry’s detriment. During one nightclub scuffle in Apia, he was allegedly assaulted by a prominent lawyer, Toleafoa Solomona Toailoa, in a dispute between the two arising from the government’s insistence that motorists move from the right-hand side of the road to the left. Terry didn’t press charges but it made for good copy in the non-government Samoan press.
But by far the most serious problem with Terry is his apparent racism. He seems to have a particular chip on his shoulder about Palagi – Europeans – inappropriately using the appellation in routine references to people like Grubsheet, Professor David Robie of the Auckland University of Technology and the respected New Zealand academic blogger Crosbie Walsh. More offensively, he described the former editor of the Fiji Post, Thakur Ranjit Singh, as a “little Indian” in the following email exchange on a Google Group with a membership of 270 people.
On Mon, May 7, 2012 at 4:42 PM, Tavita Terrence (address deleted wrote:
david robie’s views and blog in recent times have been drifting towards the pro-regime brigade..I reckon he’s getting too cozy with his palagi mates crosbie walsh, graham davies and little indian apologist ranjit..
That Google group is run by Cook Islands journalist Lisa Williams-Lahari and campaigns for media freedom in the Pacific. She’s normally regarded as an ally of Terry Tavita’s in the largely Polynesian campaign against any accommodation with Bainimarama’s Fiji. But in the following exchange, she’s clearly had enough.
From: Lisa Williams-Lahari (address deleted) To: deleted) Sent: Sunday, May 6, 2012 11:48 PM Subject: [PFF] LANGUAGE and RESPECT
Tupuola, once more can I implore you to stop stooping to this level on the forum.
I am seriously thinking of shutting this group down and moving it to FB (Facebook) where you can rant in a threaded context….but we will lose many of our members who are not on or blocked from social media.
I know most of us are already past your language and self control issues but lets practise some ethical conduct and stop linking ethnicity to any commentary. I find it offensive and degrading to yourself as well as the target of your venom.
These putdowns create barriers to communication and undermine all the hard work and relationship building that others do.
So stop it.
In his response, Terry isn’t chastened.
On Mon, May 7, 2012 at 4:49 PM, Tavita Terrence (address deleted) wrote:
it’s the truth lisa..
And from Lisa again:
From: Lisa Williams-Lahari l(address deleted) To: (address deleted Sent: Sunday, May 6, 2012 11:58 PM Subject: Re: [PFF] LANGUAGE and RESPECT
If you want your truth to be heard my brother, you better start speaking it in a way that allows you to be heard.
Tupuola Terry Tavita is heard alright, but for all the wrong reasons – foulmouthed, racist diatribes from a person who holds a senior position in the highest office in the land in Samoa and edits a government newspaper with a proud history dating back to 1906.
He ought to be a force for good in the Pacific – for unity – but seems enraged and deeply frustrated by his abject failure to isolate Fiji and have some of the regional institutions based there moved to Samoa. His belligerence alienates many of those closest to him, not to mention the wider Pacific media community. But it’s his appalling racism that really rankles with Grubsheet. How ironic that someone who campaigns so loudly for democracy in Fiji appears to have the racist traits that Frank Bainimarama is working so hard to eliminate.
(NEW MATERIAL ADDED ON MAY 10th)
Leaving aside Terry Tavita’s personal behavior, a more substantive criticism of him is that much of the advice he gives his boss, the Prime Minister, is just plain wrong. As the months pass and Fiji gains more international traction, it’s the Samoans who are being left behind and face a huge task rebuilding the relationship because of their belligerence. Tavita was one of the architects of Samoa’s strong support for the renegade Fiji military officer, Ratu Tevita Mara, who met Prime Minister Tuilaepa in Canberra soon after his defection to Tonga a year ago. Months before – in September 2010 – Tavita confidently predicted in the regional media that Mara would topple Frank Bainimarama within 12 months. We’re still waiting.
By Tupuola Terrence Tavita, in Apia.
There could very well be a third coup in Fiji very soon, this time from inside the barracks. The word from reliable sources in Suva (who wish to remain anonymous) is that the powerful Military Council – most of them from Fiji’s chiefly families – have become disenchanted with how Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama is running things.
The Military Council is maneuvering to call the shots from inside the barracks. One name that has come across more often now – and remember this one – is Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba – or popularly known as Roko Ului – a son of the late president Ratu Sir Kamasese Mara. Roko Ului sits on the Military Council and more importantly, is the commander of the Fiji military’s Third Battalion. This battalion holds the guys who carry the biggest guns in the military and look after the national armory.
Unlike Frank Bainimarama, Ratu Tevita has very strong traditional alliances. One of his sisters – Adi Koila is married to current Fiji president Ratu Epeli Nailatikau and another, Adi Ateca, is married to the current Minister of Fiji Home Affairs Ratu Epeli Ganilau. Fiji sources say there is significance in changes made to some powerful positions within the Military Government. They say, departing Police Commissioner and Christian fundamentalist Esala Teleni was removed from his position. So was the recent permanent secretary of Finance, John Prasad – who holds a New Zealand passport and is believed to be heading back to Auckland this week. Sources say both calls came from inside the barracks – from the Council – for these two to get out.
Our sources say the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum – who has been designing those draconian emergency decrees – will be next. Slowly the Council is cutting Bainimarama’s support from under him. The plan will eventually remove Bainimarama as well. Our sources say he definitely will not last till 2014 where he has promised Fiji will go to the polls. In fact, they tell us, Frank wont last 12 months.
The criticism suggests Bainimarama made the perennial mistake of leaving the barracks and went running around pretending to be Prime Minister. Flying off to China, to the Emirates and Burma among other places to solicit international support for his junta. This while others in the military – in the Security Council – have been slowly asserting themselves in the barracks.
This is the reality of military governments and military dictatorships. You suppress the media, scurry the opposition, leaving you and your military ilk at the top. But then as best illustrated in William Golding’s award winning book Lord of the Flies, you start to turn on each other.
Was Tupuola Terry Tavita talking to Tevita Mara a full eight months before his defection? It sure seems that way. Was Terry Tavita encouraging Mara in the notion that he’d have Samoan backing to remove Bainimarama? Perhaps. Yet in the event, Mara proved to be a non-event. We know from Frank Bainimarama that Mara tried to remove him but was unmasked and fled. And in exile – despite the public support of the Samoans – he’s been unable to marshal more than a room full of supporters, let alone mount any internal challenge.
Perhaps all this explains Terry Tavita’s simmering rage about Fiji. By backing the wrong horse in Mara – and stupidly telegraphing it months before – he’s had to endure his own version of Golding’s Lord of the Flies – having to play the role of Piggy, the fat boy crushed by a falling boulder when everyone decides that they’ve heard enough.