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Special Media Zone a First at the U.N.

Bright lights shone down on a trail of even brighter duct tape that secured a long cable to the floor. The line led to a special audio outlet that would be linked to cameras propped up on tripods. The cameras would later be used to stream Facebook Live feeds on the page of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Inside the spacious room, branding on banners and fliers scattered on tables declared the significance of the temporary space—an “Indigenous Media Zone,” the first of its kind to ever be installed at UN headquarters.

“It’s very important that we have this space because the right to information is very important,” said Guadalupe Martínez Pérez, who is part of a group of indigenous women behind the communications agenda. “There are many issues: no technology, and the other, there is no capacity to access media.”

The problem for indigenous media makers, say advocates, is the challenge of being recognized as legitimate storytellers alongside a more established press. Credentialed access to events such as the UNPFII has long been denied to those lacking mainstream recognition.

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But this week at the UNPFII, the indigenous media zone has offered more than 40 panels and interview opportunities with key actors behind the Forum to independent indigenous storytellers and legacy media alike.

Five years ago, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples by highlighting the key role that media play in the advancement of indigenous rights. Today, those sentiments have slowly but steadily shifted to try and close the gap on media access, one of the more persistent hurdles facing Indigenous Peoples at home and at the UN.

“Indigenous voices are recounting compelling stories of how they are combating centuries of injustice and discrimination, and advocating for the resources and rights that will preserve their cultures, languages, spirituality and traditions,” Ban said back then.

In his 2012 message at the UN, the secretary-general pledged the full support of the UN system to cooperate with Indigenous Peoples and their media to promote the full implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the foundation to holding nation states accountable for the fair and just treatment of their indigenous populations. Ban called on Member States and the mainstream press to give indigenous voices a consistent platform.

Article 16 of the Declaration directly spells out the right of Indigenous Peoples to their own media. This week at the start of the 16th Session of the UNPFII, Anna Sunna from Sami Radio, Sweden, was proudly exercising this right. Dressed in regalia, she was seated before her laptop and a smattering of notes. She said she had been writing about the indigenous struggle for the past three years—but only from a distance.

Anna Sunna from Sami Radio, Sweden, works in the special indigenous media room set aside at this year's UNFPII session.

Anna Sunna from Sami Radio, Sweden, works in the special indigenous media room set aside at this year's UNFPII session.

“It’s hard. Usually I am based in northern Sweden and everything is happening here or in Geneva,” said Sunna, referencing the UN headquarters in New York. “Physically being here helps you better find the facts.”

For Sunna, indigenous media matters because, she said, it helps to break down long-held stereotypes in her home country of Sweden.

“They all think we’re reindeer herders,” said the Sami woman with slight laughter. “But we live in cities, too.”

The media zone won full support from the Secretary of the UNPFII and the office of the General Assembly. Myrna Cunningham, a Miskita rights activist from Nicaragua and former UNPFII Chairwoman, advocated for the space—a deliberate gesture to chronicle the indigenous struggle through indigenous channels, languages and perspectives.

“We cannot come to the international level and change standards if that doesn’t grow from the local community,” said Cunningham. “But we need those two ends to connect, and the media zone is the way to connect those two.”

Main floor of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Peoples. This year for the first time there's a room set aside for indigenous media.

Main floor of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Peoples. This year for the first time there's a room set aside for indigenous media.