/ 2 September 2008

How a tribal people’s charity was misrepresented

The British newspaper the Observer has apologised for a ”misleading” article about dramatic images apparently of a ”lost” Brazilian tribe believed never to have had contact with the outside world.

The article was also published by the Mail & Guardian Online, which has a copy-sharing agreement with the Observer.

First, on May 30 this year, the M&G Online published a short article titled ”Report: Lost tribe discovered deep in Amazon”. The article, sourced from Agence France-Presse, described dramatic images of an isolated Brazilian tribe that were published by officials to draw attention to threats posed to their way of life.

A month later, on June 22, the M&G Online published ”Secret of the ‘lost’ tribe that wasn’t”, the article sourced from the Observer.

The article noted: ”It has now emerged that, far from being unknown, the tribe’s existence has been noted since 1910 and the mission to photograph them was undertaken in order to prove that ‘uncontacted’ tribes still existed in an area endangered by the menace of the logging industry.

”The disclosures have been made by the man behind the pictures, José Carlos Meirelles (61), one of the handful of sertanistas — experts on indigenous tribes — working for the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency, Funai, which is dedicated to searching out remote tribes and protecting them.”

It also reported: ”Survival International, the organisation that released the pictures along with Funai, conceded … that Funai had known about this nomadic tribe for about two decades. It defended the disturbance of the tribe, saying that, since the images had been released, it had forced neighbouring Peru to re-examine its logging policy in the border area where the tribe lives, as a result of the international media attention.”

Survival International subsequently complained that the Observer‘s report was false. In turn, Observer world affairs editor Peter Beaumont threatened to sue Survival for libel for suggesting that his article had been misleading.

Survival then made a formal complaint to the British Press Complaints Commission, whose investigation led to the Observer‘s apology.

Read the Observer‘s full apology here.

Survival International director Stephen Corry said: ”The Observer‘s original article was doubly damaging: firstly, because it suggested that we had misled people, and secondly because it was used by those opposed to tribal peoples’ rights to suggest that the photos of uncontacted Amazon Indians were faked.”

The M&G Online has added a comment to the Observer article on its website to note the dispute and to link to the explanation provided above.