In Asia Pacific, media reinforce marginalization, discrimination vs indigenous peoples

Date of publication: 
21 July 2013

It is the same anywhere in the Asia Pacific region, either indigenous people’s issues are ignored or distorted by the media.

BANGKOK – “This Polahi Tribe in Gorontalo, Half Human Half Animal.”

Such is the headline of a May 6 article by Indonesian online publication The online media outfit is owned by Indonesia media giant company, Kompas Gramedia Group. Indigenous people’s group in Indonesia Aaliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (Aman) sent a letter of protest. The media company later on apologized to Aman but not to the Polahi tribe.

Mona Shihombing, media relations staff of Aman, said the incident is but one of the manifestations how media depict indigenous peoples in Indonesia. “Jakarta-centric media coverage indirectly ignores involvement of indigenous peoples in mainstream media,” Shihombing told the participants of the Regional Networking Workshop and Developing Indigenous Media Strategy held in Bangkok, July 15 to July 18.

Organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), the workshop is part of Indigenous Voices in Asia (IVA) project that aims to amplify the voice of indigenous peoples across the region through the media.

The experience of Indonesia is shared by other indigenous peoples groups from the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia, Malaysia and India.

In Nepal, issues of the indigenous peoples are often ignored by the mainstream media.

Hit Bahadur Thapa Kham of the Federation of National Indigenous Journalists (Fonij) said below eight percent of indigenous peoples issues were covered by the mainstream media. He cited a case in point:

“When two indigenous Tharu activists advocating for identity and federalism were killed by security forces during a movement in midwestern Nepal, this big news was not covered by mainstream media.”

Kham told the delegates of the IVA workshop that when 50,000 indigenous peoples held a general strike last year calling for the creation of identity-based federalism, the strike was not reported by the mainstream media. Instead, the demand was branded as anti-national.

What is being reported, on the other hand, is the culture of indigenous peoples but often treated with romanticism.

“They are portrayed in festivals with colorful costumes to attract tourists. Their real issues are often ignored,” Fullon said.


Indigenous peoples advocates identified several barriers to indigenous peoples’ access to media.

“Most media outfits are owned by government or corporations involved in destructive industries,” Aung Kyaw Soe of AIPP said.

In the case of the Philippines, Fullon said, the media industry is dominated by government and corporations with interests in mining.

“Reporters in the dominant media do not report issues that are inherently opposed to the corporate interests of media owners,” Fullon said.

The same is true for Malaysia where state controls the media.
Nancy Lai, a journalist based in Sabah, said most journalists practice self-censorship for fear that their newspapers might be shut down.

“It’s either stories get heavily edited or killed,” Lai said.

The same is true in Indonesia and Nepal: media industries are controlled by the state and big private corporations. In Cambodia, 100 percent of television networks and 80 percent of radio stations are owned by the ruling party.

Language remains to be a barrier.

In Cambodia, majority of the indigenous peoples do not speak and write Khmer national language, according to Naung Sam Oeung of Building Community Voices.

Soe also pointed out that geographical isolation of indigenous peoples communities and poor technological infrastructure also hinder access to media.

Claiming space

Indigenous peoples advocates and journalists underscored the importance of creating independent media and utilizing social media.

Teck Chi Wong, news editor of Malaysia Kini, said they established the online media outfit in 1999 as a response to government’s restrictions on press freedom.

Wong said that internet is relatively free from government regulation. Today, Malaysia Kini is one of the top news sites in Malaysia.

Lai affirmed the role of alternative media and social media in reporting indigenous peoples issues. “I rely a lot on social media and alternative news sites. I pick up stories, ask some people to comment on it and publish it in the print media,” she said.

In the Philippines, indigenous peoples set up Radyo Sagada, a community radio based in Sagada, Mountain Province in 2011. Kamp’s Fullon said they are planning to set up two more community radio stations in Southern Tagalog and Northern Mindanao.

In Indonesia and Nepal, indigenous peoples groups put up their own community radio stations and trained citizen journalists from the ranks of indigenous peoples.

“We need to establish our own media and link it with the mainstream media,” Joan Carling, AIPP secretary general, said.

The highlight of the workshop is the creation of a network of indigenous peoples, advocates and journalists committed to widen indigenous peoples’ access to media. The writer represented in the conference. (