Journalists need to leave the Stone Age

A global charity has launched a campaign to stop journalists using easy but inaccurate and offensive epithets to describe tribal people. Jonathan Brown admits his guilt and apologises
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The Independent Online

here can be few journalists who turn down the chance to inject an exciting phrase into copy to give it that little bit of extra drama. I am no exception. In Christmas 2004 after the tsunami brought death and destruction on an unprecedented scale to the people of the Indian Ocean, like many other reporters, I could not resist describing the inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, closest to the centre of the quake, as "stone-age tribes".

It was just one of those phrases that had entered into the cuts, made its way on to the news wires, and was slavishly copied by those of us pulling together the story from the comfort of the office. Survival International, the charity which supports tribal peoples, helping them defend their way of life and protect their lands, believes the tsunami marked the low point in journalistic sensitivity to the plight of indigenous people. Hundreds of reports carried stories of the "primitive" or "stone-age" tribes of Andaman around the world. The spotlight faded but the habit remains ingrained, ready to rear its ugly head the next time tribal peoples are in the news.

So concerned is the organisation's director, Stephen Corry, about the use of such "racist" phrases, which he says are all too often used to justify persecution and forced "development" by governments, that he has issued a call to arms to Survival's 20,000 members around the world.

He is urging supporters to cast a critical eye over future media reports about tribal people, and to pick up editors when they allow pejorative phrases to slip through. The charity has already named and shamed a number of publications and media outlets. It cites a report in The Daily Telegraph in November 2005 entitled "Guardian of the Stone Age Tribes". Also highlighted is an account in Marie Claire of a young German woman's childhood with her scientist parents among the Fayu people of West Papua in Indonesia that bears the headline "Growing up with Cannibals". There are dozens more examples - including from The Guardian, the BBC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Survival is providing free postcards for supporters to lodge their concerns. Corry insists the campaign is not about political correctness - belittling people is often the first stage in the outside world exploiting them. Too often among tribal peoples this has lead to poverty, prostitution, alcoholism and death, he says. "Would people still use the same demeaning language talking about European gypsies or immigrants? It is fundamentally an old, 19th-century throwback to the idea that that these people are somehow like our ancestors, or backward. It conveys that they are somehow not as intelligent as we are; that they haven't progressed as far as we have. It is fundamentally a colonial mentality," he says.

Corry points out that there are 300 million indigenous people, half of whom can be described as tribal. In terms of individual societies, they constitute by far the largest number, giving the world much of its anthropological and social diversity and richness. Very few, if any, could truly be said to have had no contact with the outside world - the Sentinelese on Andaman being perhaps the only example, he says. Many tribes in the Amazon meanwhile, are actively fleeing outsiders, having judged - correctly - that contact will prove devastating and potentially deadly for them. All Amazonian tribes bear some mark of the outside world - although some have severed all links with strangers for as much as 200 years.

In South America, describing tribes as "stone-age" is even more inappropriate, argues Corry. The phrase refers to the Palaeolithic period when man's ancestors in Europe used predominately stone tools before progressing to ones made out of metal. "In the Amazon there are hardly any stone tools - some stone axes, but almost everything is made out of wood," he says.

The reporter Ricardo Uztarroz has covered South America for decades and has written an acclaimed study of the Amazon region and its people. He believes that it is incumbent on reporters to exercise caution when approaching the subject of "original peoples": "I don't know if we are superior or inferior to the people of the Amazon. We are certainly different - our civilisation and our values - but the word 'primitive' just does not make sense. When using language it is important to use words that are neutral," he says.

The problem with words is not just confined to newspapers and television. There is mounting concern among campaigners that a new Hollywood film, End of the Spear, which tells the story of missionary contact with the Waodani people of Ecuador, falls into the same old traps. Critics have claimed it is retelling history from a Christian-fundamentalist point of view.

According to Corry, it is essential that the brutal reality of many of these "contacts" is not forgotten. He says he faces a difficult enough task convincing editors that the plight of tribal peoples is a story worth telling. "They think that no one is interested. Our point is that tribal people are in the majority, that most societies are tribal," he says.

Survival has proved adept at publicising its cause. One reason is that it has among its supporters a ready supply of celebrity backers. Colin Firth is currently helping to promote the rights of the San, who are otherwise - inappropriately - known as the Kalahari Bushmen, and whose way of life has come under sustained attack in Botswana. One of the key moments in turning the tide there was convincing the local media not to use derogatory language about the San. In recent years Survival has enjoyed a host of other celebrity endorsements. Richard Gere has spoken up for the Jumma of Bangladesh, Julie Christie gave a Radio 4 appeal on behalf of the Khanty of Siberia while Dame Judi Dench warned of the plight of the Arhuaco of Colombia. But getting famous people involved is not always a winning strategy. The pop star Sting was viciously lampooned when he championed the Yanomami of the Amazon. Some claimed it actually harmed them and put their cause back. Corry says such strategies must be carefully prepared. "Celebrities need to have a good deal of understanding and background in what they get into. Sometime they don't always think through the implications."

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