Barbara Dreaver on the joy of giving Pacific people a voice

by Sarah Barnett / 11 August, 2007

Barbara Dreaver is interviewed by media after being detained in Fiji in December 2008. Photo / Getty Images

Born and raised in Kiribati, Barbara Dreaver says she has an "unfair advantage" over journalistic rivals in the Pacific because of her mum's 11 siblings' families scattered through the region. But it's Dreaver's sheer legwork that landed her the job of TVNZ's Pacific correspondent within five years of joining the network. After qualifying in New Zealand, she lived and worked in the Cook Islands before returning here in 1998 only to find that Pacific work experience wasn't really valued in the job market - "So you understand that there isn't one day that goes past that I don't think how lucky I am to be doing what I do." She's come a long way since starting her own paper in the Cooks.

Brave thing to do. Every week we had to borrow a laser printer, borrow a car to take our computer to the laser printer, then we would fold the damn paper ourselves. It was really difficult, but it was great. We came up with our own stories each week - we wrote some huge stories.

"TV is such a different way of telling a story. When TV works, it works really well. It's so powerful. Man, I didn't realise until I got to TV just how powerful pictures can be. That's why it makes me excited. Pictures really work for my people, Pacific people - who haven't really had a voice for a long time in New Zealand.

And you've broken some huge stories. My favourite is the Samoa adoption story. [Dreaver uncovered a US-based baby-smuggling ring in Samoa.] It was a real punt when I went across but we got the goodies. It was the only time I'd ever cried on a story. We went into this halfway house where these children who were being adopted out to the US were kept. They had parents, and we knew their parents had been told that they were going to see their kids again, but that was highly unlikely. When I came out of that place, I went behind the four-wheel drive and wept a little tear. That is the story I'm most proud of, because something tangible came out of it. That adoption agency's about to be shut down and they've all been arrested and they're going to be charged. To me, that's what it's all about, that's what we were taught at journalism school: you've gotta make a difference.

Which must make it easier to deal with the travel and the hours. People joke about the travel, but it's blimmin' hard work. It's like having a Christmas present that you're not allowed to open. We drive past those beaches! But it's still a real privilege because we get to meet some pretty amazing people - and some pretty unamazing people as well.

The rest of the world is starting to show more interest. Well, the US is worried about the Pacific, because it's their border. And in the War on Terror, such as it is, you can see why they're worried - the Pacific is a weak point in terms of security. And they may be only little countries, but they've each got a vote, as Japan with the whaling knows. I feel sorry for the whales, too, but it's all very well criticising Tuvalu and Kiribati for supporting Japan, but Japan gave them money that they really, really needed. [Japan offered aid to small Pacific nations in return for their vote to end a moratorium on commercial whaling.] And the Prime Minister of Tuvalu said to me, "Do I choose the whales, or do I choose my people? I choose my people." And the bitter reality is that they need help - and Japan came along and offered it. It's at a terrible price, but that's why it's important for us to show what it's like.

Within New Zealand, one of the biggest issues you've covered recently is youth gangs. They're changing. Whereas they used to be a group of kids who got together and caused a bit of merry hell, they're now dealing in drugs, in P, and they're being associated with the bigger gangs. For the first time, at the Pasifika Festival this year, I saw big groups of youth gangs. There was a huge police presence and that was really sad. We have a lot of lost youth here, and that's what we're seeing. The only thing that's going to fix it is the community itself and they know it.

What's being done? Oh, heaps. I went to a fono a couple of weeks ago, and it's amazing the number of Pacific Islanders who are out there doing something, and a lot of them are just volunteers. There are also youth groups that are making a huge difference - a lot of them were gang members and now they're grown up and they're saying, "Hell, no, I don't want my kids involved in that!" People are realising that the problem is growing and we don't want it to be like in Los Angeles. There are so many good things out there, but it's very hard for parents, single mums who are watching their kids get out of control. I've interviewed a lot of mums who are just at the end. They know I care and I've been there and I know. The Pacific community don't trust outsiders, it's like any community really. And they need to know that you do care about it. I'm always upfront, I'm going to say it how it is, but I do care.


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