TVNZ reporter Barbara Dreaver is a voice for Pasifika

The 1News reporter says the job’s worth the risks if she’s helping people

For the past 21 years, Barbara Dreaver has been TVNZ’s face of the Pacific. She’s been arrested and threatened; interviewed kings, leaders and refugees; been accused of spying, and exposed a Samoan adoption scam. She’s won awards and changed the course of lives.

Barbara grew up barefoot and happy in Kiribati. Her father was a New Zealand teacher stationed there and her Kiribati-born mother had 11 siblings. Barbara has cousins throughout the Pacific, including Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Tonga.

The Dreavers moved to New Zealand when Barbara turned 10. “I learned to wear shoes! But I also learned I wanted to be a journalist.”

In the family’s mini moke with mum Lavinia and sister Rachel.

Her path wasn’t straight-forward. “I didn’t get into AUT, so I studied journalism at Manukau Polytech,” she says. “Straightaway, I knew this was for me. I wanted to make a difference. I believed then and now that you must tell people’s stories and expose injustice or nothing changes.”

After study, she needed a job. “In the early ’90s, I couldn’t get one – people weren’t hiring Pasifika journalists. I moved to Rarotonga and worked at the Cook Island News, where I learned journalism, respect and that things are never as simple as they seem. Trust is everything. In a small place like Rarotonga, people must trust you to tell their story.”

Next, she co-owned a small business called the Cook Islands Press. “It sounds glamorous, but wasn’t! We printed 1200 to 1500 papers every week, which we did by borrowing a computer, driving a borrowed car to a borrowed printer and folding every page by hand.

“Once, our printing plate didn’t arrive, so we found some plates and used a screwdriver, making holes in the ends to attach them to the printing press.”

Talking to locals about the time JK Kennedy was rescued from a torpedoed boat in the Solomons.

Barbara quickly discovered that to be a successful journalist, she’d need a thick skin. “We were reporting on big issues, and big stories in small communities means you’re bound to upset some people. We had to be careful as strict legislation limited local media. But we exposed widespread corruption and overspending in the Cook Islands government.”

After eight years, Barbara returned to Aotearoa, working for the NZ Listener and Radio New Zealand, before starting at TVNZ in 2002. “I remember walking up to the doors and thinking, ‘I work here now.’ It was a big deal. It still is.”

In 2004, she was made TVNZ’s Pacific Correspondent. While she’d seen corruption before, being at TVNZ stepped it up a level. Some stories put her in real danger, like the 2006 Fiji military coup. “In a military dictatorship, controlling the media is high on their list. Local journalists went through terrible things and Fiji TV was banned from reporting. Instead of news, a black screen appeared, saying, ‘This has been censored.'”

Reporting live after Cyclone Gita.

Two years later, Barbara was locked up. “It was horrific,” she recalls. “We were doing a story about the New Zealand High Commissioner being expelled from Fiji, but when I arrived in Fiji, they took me to a detention centre – which my cameraman secretly filmed.

“I’d kept my phone, so I rang everyone, but was told the military said I’d be lucky if I was on a plane the next day and that I deserved everything that was coming to me.”

While under detention, Barbara practiced undressing, as she’d heard that’s what the military forced some detained women to do – she wanted to undress without flinching. She also hid her inhaler in her undies as there were stories of detainees made to run until they collapsed. “I didn’t want to die of an asthma attack,” she says. Ultimately, Barbara was released and sent home.

Another profound story was the 2019 Samoan measles epidemic. “Because I’m a mum, the stories about kids are the hardest,” she says. “So many people died. We were allowed to film the funeral of two babies, which was heartbreaking and extremely traumatic.”

Amongst the debris of last year’s Tongan tsunami.

Despite all the harrowing events, Barbara still loves her job with a passion. She’s talked with Pacific Island candidates with the 1News team in the lead-up to the general election and she’ll be live on the night, reinforcing the importance of Pacific voices in politics.

“I want people to vote,” she says. “It’s important we have a voice and we use it. I’m so proud that we have so many intelligent, committed people in politics. Hopefully, we’ll get more after October 14.”

Does she ever tire of her job? “I consider myself extremely lucky,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve got braver – my family and TVNZ support me. I’m doing this for the right reasons. It raises awareness of issues, like the importance of vaccination in Samoa. For me, it’s never about the story – it’s about the people. Life is about leaving something good.”

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