The first world left has sometimes failed to be critical of media coverage of indigenous issues because they come from countries with long histories of colonialism, settler-colonialism, and imperialism. This lack of skepticism is based in good intentions, as the first world non-colonized left has long been complicit in colonialism and imperialism, but this lack of skepticism provides openings for reactionary propaganda to go completely unchallenged.
On August 29, 2012, Survival International, a British NGO run by Stephen Corry, a Free Tibet board member, began a propaganda campaign against the Venezuelan government claiming that they received reports that Brazilian gold miners massacred over 80 members of the Yanomami tribe by shooters from helicopters. This was immediately picked up by the capitalist and leftist media organizations, with nearly every article opening with vivid writing about charred bodies. This came at an opportune time, a little over a month before the Venezuelan elections. However, this massacre never actually happened. This Telegraph article is representative of most of the media coverage:
The charred remains of dozens of Yanomami Indians were discovered inside the village “shabono” in the remote community of Irotatheri on the southern Venezuelan border with Brazil.
A shabono is a circular hut that typically houses dozens of tribesmen and women.
Three survivors were found walking in the jungle after the attack, having fled at the sound of gunshots, explosions and the sound of a helicopter while they were out hunting.
The massacre is believed to have happened sometime last month but due to the remoteness of the village, information had to be relayed from village to village until it reached Yanomami tribal leaders who alerted the Venezuelan authorities.
Luis Shatiwe Ahiwei, a leader of the Horonami Yanomami Organisation, said the number of people killed in the attack could not be certain but witnesses had said about 80 people lived there.
The next day, the Venezuelan government immediately launched an investigation, and on September 2th, announced that they had not found any evidence of a massacre after an in-depth investigation. Survival International responded with the scathing accusation that the Venezuelan government was whitewashing the massacre.
Survival has denounced the Venezuelan government’s repeated denials of a massacre against Yanomami Indians, calling on President Chávez to evict all illegal goldminers from indigenous territory and conduct a proper, on-site investigation.
The President is the latest senior Venezuelan official to insist there is no evidence of an attack on the Irotatheri community, in a remote part of the Amazon, close to the border with Brazil.
Stephen Corry, Survival’s Director also said today, ‘If the Venezuelan government had the welfare of its indigenous peoples at heart it would be taking action to remove the miners from Indian land, rather than taking pains to deny there was a violent confrontation between the miners and the Indians. It’s behaving just like Latin American governments always have, putting the protection of its own reputation above the lives of its Indians. Next we’ll be hearing that we’re part of a capitalist conspiracy to destabilize the government in its election year, just as we’re part of a left-wing conspiracy when we denounce this kind of violence in rightist countries. Indigenous peoples have been treated equally badly by both right and left, for generations. President Chávez should get all those invading indigenous territory kicked out throughout Venezuela, and make sure this particular incident, where murders have been reported, is subject to an immediate and proper investigation.’
Witnesses of the attack’s aftermath reported finding ‘burnt bodies and bones’.
This accusation of whitewashing was picked up by leftist bloggers and liberal internet media organizations like CommonDreams and Truth-Out. Less than a week later, Survival International published a very short statement admitting that the massacre never took place, then immediately began attacking the Venezuelan government and its supporters for their conduct.
Having received its own testimony from confidential sources, Survival now believes there was no attack by miners on the Yanomami settlement of Irotatheri. Yanomami from the area – in which many illegal gold miners are currently operating – had heard stories of a killing in July, and this was reported, by some, as having occurred in this settlement.
We currently do not know whether or not these stories were sparked by a violent incident, which is the most likely explanation, but tension remains high in the area.
The Venezuelan government’s reaction remains shameful. It has not said, even now, that it will remove the miners, and it immediately denied having found ‘evidence’ of killings, before even concluding its own investigation. Its supporters have gone further and accused its critics of being part of a right-wing conspiracy etc.
The Venezuelan authorities should continue to investigate this incident and, most importantly, must evict those invading the Yanomami and other Indian territories in the country.
In another media interview, Stephen Corry had this to say:
“The most appalling aspect of the Venezuelan government reaction is that its initial stance seemed to be disbelief,” he said. “Some sectors of government were denying this had happened even before people had reached the site, which does nothing to encourage one’s faith in the government.”
If doubting unverified reports from British NGOs doesn’t encourage faith in the government, one has to wonder what Stephen Corry thinks the effect of this propaganda campaign will have on his own credibility. His work with the Free Tibet movement has likely taught him that it matters far less what you say and far more who you are saying it about. Attacking progressive countries which take a stand against imperialism and neoliberal capitalism never requires much credibility, all that it requires is a headline that can be published.
CommonDreams and Truth-out never published the admission that there never was a massacre, in fact, the only articles that exist on this issue on both of their websites claim that the massacre happened.
This progression of events should be familiar to all of those who’ve learned about the propagation of disinformation through the media. False, sensationalistic stories hit the front pages and are spread like wildfire, then corrections come weeks later in the marginalized sections of newspapers. This strategy preserves the integrity of news organizations while having the full propaganda effect, as people remember the initial story far more vividly than the corrections.
The pro-Chavez left-wing and liberal organizations in the first world largely didn’t report the massacre, which is an appropriate action to take considering the unreliability of the sources, but they also didn’t provide any analysis of the propaganda coup carried out by Survival International. Propaganda like this has to be challenged and exposed to create a habit of critical media analysis.
The best piece of writing I’ve found on this issue comes from Les Blough writing for Axis of Logic, it takes an in-depth look at Stephen Corry’s past and the actions of Survival International. Rather than being an indigenous rights organization, it makes a compelling case for it being one complicit with imperialism.