By Lucy Mullinger: Pacific Media Centre
World Press Freedom day was celebrated around the globe this weekend while one of New Zealand's top reporters has been fending off a nasty smear campaign over a controversial report about gangs and guns in Samoa.
The Samoan government has threatened legal action against Television New Zealand and Pacific affairs reporter Barbara Dreaver because of her report on April 6 which highlighted the issue of guns being smuggled into the Pacific country.
Gangs are accused of being involved and also as drug dealers.
Samoan authorities claim there is no “gang culture” in the country. Dreaver is accused of bribing young Samoan men with alcohol to get a fabricated story about the gangs.
Dreaver denies the claims. She says no legal action or complaint has been filed through the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) – and she vows to fight it if it does.
Dreaver stands by her story, saying: “There are a lot of people working on TVNZ stories and I would never be allowed to film something that was untrue”.
Her network recently publicly issued a sworn affidavit by her rejecting the allegations, and she adds: “I have proof and their argument would never stand up in court.”
The regional media freedom conference is being held in Samoa this week and the director of the Pacific Media Centre, Associate Professor David Robie, will be attending and expects the controversy to be debated.
“The issue will be a hot topic. I hope that it will be conducted fairly and professionally,” he says.
A Samoa Observer article written by an anonymous reporter on April 26 said: “Whether Dreaver and TVNZ agree, the truth is that as anyone who has lived in this country for many years will vouch, there is no such thing as a gang culture in Samoa”.
The Sunday Samoan refers to Dreaver’s story as “a sickening documentary”.
The reporter goes on to refer to a scene with young men “brandishing guns” as a “despicable scene” where Dreaver is alleged to have misled them to believe they were in a Hollywood film.
Dreaver denies this and says: “The boys had a lot of marijuana on them and Samoa has strict rules about carrying joints, of course they are going to deny being involved.”
The reporter continues: “The images are so disgusting you feel like running outside and bury[ing] your head in the mud.”
This time the reporter does not completely rule out the fact there are problems in Samoa: “We admit there are drugs-and-guns-related problems here but then every country has them”.
Dr Robie describes an unsigned editorial in the Sunday Samoan on April 20 that personally "threatens" Dreaver as one of the worst personal attacks on a journalist he has seen in some time.
He defends Dreaver, saying: “She is one of the leading roving Pacific correspondents in the region” He believes she is unmatched in New Zealand television and has been “a role model to many journalists”.
An ex-colleague and friend of Dreaver, Sandra Kailahi, is a producer and presenter on the new digital channel TVNZ7 who agrees with Dr Robie.
She has known Dreaver for many years after attending the same journalism school in 1990 and says: “I don’t believe Barbara would deliberately mislead anyone.”
Editor of Spasifik magazine Peter Rees used to work for the Samoa Observer. He notes Dreaver has written columns for Spasifik in the past and says: “Her determination to expose NZ audiences to Pacific issues through her role on One News is to be commended”.
He says there is gang activity in Samoa “but not at the levels that people are led to believe”.
In Dreaver’s story, he believes that gangs are not the same in Samoa as they are in New Zealand.
“It is more to do with unemployed and bored youth in the urbanised areas of the capital Apia.”
Rees believes there is a problem in Samoa but it involves “ice” or harder drugs, rather than marijuana. It is an example of a problem that is more serious than the “youth gang reports”.
Sandra Kailahi believes Samoa is a great place to visit and wasn’t aware of the gang issue until the story.
“But in all honesty, I am not surprised given its strong ties and links to New Zealand, Samoa and America”.
She admits Samoa is not the only place where drugs are an issue as Tonga was used by many gangs as a stopping place.
“In one big case many years ago, drugs were hidden in root crops like yams bound for NZ”.
When asked why Samoan authorities and many news people reject the accusations of gangs in their country, Kailahi says: “A story like this can alter peoples’ perception of an ideal South Pacific destination and that translates in hard cash or lack of it”.
She also believes it might also be “about not being fakama” and the people felt shamed.
Samoan resident Annette Wazhia lives near Apia and says she is “very angry” about the allegations of gangs in Samoa.
“I haven't seen or heard of gangs in Samoa. It is a very safe place”.
She is one of the local people who believe the story is not true and is “saddened” by the story.
A Pacific Island representative who is not from Samoa but has visited the country many times agrees that Samoa is a safe place but believes there is some criminal activity.
“The motive is more to do with getting cash rather than competing for ‘turf’ which is quite an urban attitude,” said the representative, who declined to be named.
The representative says that strong family ties in Samoa, community and church networks “frown upon gangs” and it would make it difficult for gangs such as exist in Western countries to take hold.
“If the gang culture does exist at all, it would not be ‘paraded’ as we find here in Auckland with patches because the networks will root it out very quickly”.
However, “wayward kids have been sent home by their families from US and NZ to get away from the gang environment”.
The same representative believes that Dreaver's story “lacked credibility because she got taken in by a group of kids who conned her into thinking they were ‘bigger’ than they really were”.
This person adds: “There could be guns being moved from American Samoa to Samoa … but I don't think that it is large enough to warrant trade.”
If the Samoan government does bring an action against TVNZ, Dreaver says: “I don't mind healthy debate but these accusations are defamatory and are a character assassination against me”.
Dreaver and her team at TVNZ will “fight it all the way”.
Lucy Mullinger is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University. She photographed the Samoan scene image ... "tarnished ideal destination".
Another piece of Barbara Dreaver's puzzle
Barbara Dreaver: The evil side of journalism
Barbara Dreaver affidavit on Pacific Media Watch
Jason Brown on the Samoan Observer 'shoot the messenger' threat
NZ drug trade fuels Samoa gun smuggling [video]