NEW YORK – When Moana Sinclair, a former TV reporter from New Zealand, came here this month to participate in a United Nations conference for native peoples to develop a network of journalists from a native background, she was taken aback by some of the attitudes she found.
“I was talking to a U.N. official, a very American cameraman, and told him I was working with indigenous journalists. And he said, ‘Well they must be a hopeless, hapless group.’ He must have thought I was European. I said, ‘I am indigenous. I am a Maori.’ That stopped him in his tracks.”
She smiled slightly at the thought, then shook her head. “Some things never change.”
Formerly an employee with New Zealand’s national TV station, TV One, and now a lawyer for Maori land-right claims, Sinclair was hired by the United Nations last year to work as a human rights officer in Geneva, where she’s coordinating the fledgling Indigenous Media Network.
Its website goes live Monday.
As another example of using the Internet to attempt to advance human rights, the Advocacy Project-built network is intended to train, publish and link working native journalists from far-flung, under-reported regions around the world. An estimated 300 million individuals are classifiable as native people in more than 70 countries, according to U.N. statistics.
The site is central to a U.N. conference of about 500 people who have been discussing the rights of indigenous populations this month, coinciding with the United Nation’s self-declared “International Decade of Indigenous Peoples” from 1995 to 2004.
“Something is better than nothing, but if it’s strategically placed in the hands of groups who … want to change the situation … it goes miles,” said Aspen Brinton, a researcher for the Advocacy Project who wrote much of the site’s content and has been fighting for funding from the United Nations and private foundations.
Meanwhile, native peoples face extra obstacles to influence a mainstream audience.
Most indigenous people are not connected to the Web, said Sharon Venne, a Cree indigenous-rights activist in Canada and the author of a definitive book on indigenous rights, Our Elders Understand Our Rights: Evolving International Law Regarding Indigenous Peoples, which was published in 1999.
“Here in the Northwest Territories, we’re having all these problems with technology, and people who don’t work in English when most of the stuff on the Web is English,” she said by phone from the town of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
In urban areas, as the Internet matures into mainstream use internationally, human rights groups are increasingly dependent on the Web to speak up for their interests, said John Emerson, a Web campaigner based in the New York office of Human Rights Watch.
“More and more (non-governmental organizations) are posting their research for the press, the public and policy-makers,” Emerson said. “And then there’s the indie media movement, a collection of websites that critique the powers that be. Grassroots journalism is a form of advocacy for social change.”
In rich countries, diaspora communities of native people are making “extensive” use of the Internet to save money or to communicate more easily in areas such as Nevada or New Mexico, where people live far apart. And in poor regions where there’s very little telephone-line infrastructure and wireless hasn’t yet arrived, cybercafés are becoming more common.
“In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is no postal system, there are very few faxes – but even the rebel leaders use e-mail,” Emerson said. “They use e-mail to communicate, but also to publicize their cause.”
Meanwhile, the battles over areas of particular legal interest to native people – limited self-rule, widespread poverty and lack of land rights – continue.
On top of instant prejudices, outsiders must overcome more difficult, insidious obstacles to achieve mainstream success.
And that’s why to Sinclair, her pet project is important. “It originates from there,” she said, “from having been on the outside.”