Discussing New Media at International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

14 Aug

On 9 August 2012, the annual conference commemorating the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was held in the ECOSOC chamber at the United Nations. This year’s conference was focused specifically on new media efforts. Representatives from indigenous groups discussed projects they had created to disseminate information, while UN officials offered brief comments on those projects.

Unfortunately, at times, it seemed as though the event was something of a formality from the UN perspective. The Secretary General’s very short opening comments, which received respectful applause, appreciated all the progress that indigenous communities have achieved thus far using new media. It did not contain specific recommendations moving forward or comment extensively on the international community’s role in addressing the needs of indigenous people.

The many achievements that the Secretary General alluded to were elaborated on throughout the day. Speakers included founders of internet news coalitions, Native American TV stations, video productions about local initiatives, a hip hop artist, and many radio stations from all over the world. A full list of speakers can be found here.

Still, along with celebrating progress, and showing many video clips to exemplify that progress, the indigenous speakers had some major criticisms of UN policy. This disapproval rose to the surface in the question and answer period. Many called for more international funding and support for the new media projects that were being celebrated. Other questioners criticized the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People for “having no teeth,” for implicitly claiming that indigenous people had lost their sovereignty, and for not acknowledging that it lacked a mechanism by which indigenous communities could regain political control. Finally, one questioner from West Papua asked the UN why it had taken no notice of the massive human rights violations in his reg.

Ultimately, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was a successful afternoon. It’s likely that the most important result of the session will be the networking opportunities it created. After almost every question, a panelist or fellow attendee would note that they should connect to the speaker after the event. In fact, the introductions and mingling began even before the session ended during the closing remarks. In a room where strangers rarely chat, this level of communication was a sight to see.

In his opening statement, Grand Chief Edward John (Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) was clear that in discussing new media, communication, stories, and languages were all at stake. One indigenous language, he told the attendants, dies every week. He highlighted the important role that the media can play in telling stories. Everyone was in agreement that mainstream media sources in their respective countries had failed to communicate properly due to corruption and negligence. Through alternate new media forms, indigenous people all around the world have ironically made productive steps balancing immensely varying pasts. It’s a step in the right direction for indigenous communication that the UN is very right to celebrate. One can only hope that UN officials listened to everything that was communicated in the ECOSOC chamber.

–Henry Neuwirth

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