Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A global “scoop” and much controversy

Luciano Martins Costa (translated from the Portuguese by Matthew Meyer)

Friday’s (5/30) front-page news on all of Brazil’s biggest newspapers had already been published on the BBC’s site and the UOL webpage: the news that FUNAI [Brazil’s Indian affairs agency] had discovered, in Acre state, a village of Indians not yet contacted by the white man, and with no record of relations with other tribes. From then on, the news and some photographs crisscrossed the globe through the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies, producing a frisson that echoed throughout television news in Brazil and internationally. Along with the news, however, ran a debate about journalistic ethics and intellectual property.

There’s not much to speculate about in the case, however. What there is, is a good case for the study of information-related rights. The “scoop,” which presented to the world the discovery made by a team led by the backwoodsman José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles Júnior, belongs to Altino Machado, and was reported on his blog.

Altino posted th story on his blog and sent a more complete version to his column at the online Terra Magazine. Meirelles provided him two CDs with about 1200 photographs and gave him an interview, at the journalist’s house, recorded on the 22nd of May. The original text was written in the presence of the backwoodsman. The next morning, on Friday the 23rd, the text was published on the blog and Terra Magazine, in addition to the longer report, distributed a version in Spanish for its entire coverage area in Latin America, the United States, and Spain.

Criteria for ceding rights

The problem was, none of the press outlets that reproduced the story in the past week cited the source. Beyond this, there arose a parallel controversy about the ownership of the photographs. The photo journalist Gleilson Miranda, chosen to accompany the expedition, decided to sell copies of the photographs for 250 reais [about US$150] each, alleging that the rights belonged to him. Miranda is an employee of the Acre State News Agency, and he took the photographs with a camera belonging to the Acre state Secretariat of Communication, on board an Acre state government airplane on loan to the backwoodsman Meirelles on an official FUNAI mission.

To set the record straight, the head of Acre’s state Communications Office, Itaan Arruda, distributed the following statement:

“I would like to make it known that images captured by any photographic or cinematographic reporter from the Acre state press office belong to the people of Acre. They are public images. They are public property. Out of respect to the people of Acre (…) we are not permitted to profit or supplement our income using property that is not ours personally and exclusively. Further, it should be noted that use of such images should follow ceding criteria, beginning with the obvious and elementary contact with the government press office or with any agency that works in partnership with us.”

Some observations

The backwoodsman José Carlos Meirelles, who is the coordinator of the Rio Envira Enthno-environmental Protection Front, also distributed a statement declaring that “the photos used on the Blog do Altino and later used in Terra Magazine were provided by me to Mr. Altino Machado. These photos are the property of the National Indian Foundation [FUNAI], as long as the Indians photographed remain isolated, and may not be used for commercial ends and much less commercialized.”

The controversy of the rights linked to the photographs will be worked out between the Acre government, its employee, and FUNAI. Some copies circulated in the international media, credited to the Associated Press (AP), which reproduced them with precarious and unauthorized license from the photographer Gleilson Miranda.

If legislation that applies to the acquisition of other products of illegitimate origin is valid in this case, it is up to AP to explain how it can assume as its property rights whose authenticity are not confirmed at their source. Such cases are common, and derive from a certain “inattention” on the part of many editors with respect to correct credit, since an image, once online, can follow chance pathways that make determining its origins difficult. The AP bought the rights from Gleilson without checking whether he held these rights. The editors receive the photo from AP and attribute credit to it, and so on.

But there are some additional observations to be made about this story. The first is that the “scoop” was only noticed by the mainstream press, and reproduced on its websites, a week after it was published on Altino Machado’s blog. The second is that the Brazilian press “didn’t see” the original version of the story: the first version on the UOL portal stated that “the photos were released by Survival International,” a group that fights to protect isolated tribes. The BBC’s site, one of the first among the latecomers to the story, likewise claimed that “the photos were released by Survival International, which supports FUNAI’s policy on isolated peoples (…)” etc. To complete the circle, the newspaper Página 20, in Rio Branco, Acre, where the author of the “scoop” lives, wrote that “the story came to light through the BBC news agency and was featured in almost all the online papers (…).”

Far from the lenses and the eyes

The story also reached readers of Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times, El País, and many other international media giants. Afterwards, on Friday (5/30), it landed on the front pages of the Folha de São Paulo, the Estado de São Paulo, the Globo, and other papers throughout Brazil. The Folha was the only daily that did right, observing that “FUNAI took more than 1000 photos. Meirelles decided to forward the photographic material to the journalist Altino Machado, who published three photos on the Terra Magazine website. The idea was to get the attention of the Acre state government, which promised to install a lookout post in the area, which has become the target of illegal gold prospecting.”

A detail: according to Altino Machado, the isolated tribe is threatened not by prospectors, but by illegal loggers who enter Amazonia through the Peruvian border—a fact that he reported at the same time.

Besides verifying that the press, in general, does not confirm the origins of many things it publishes, the debate involves another question, suggested by Meirelles, the backwoodsman. The photographs of the Indians presupposes a right that they may eventually exercise, if and when they decide to accept contact with the whites. Because of this, the backwoodsman has been scrambling to provide registers to assure that, in the future, this right does not continue to be ignored.

In Acre, the Indians who avoid contact with the whites and with acculturated tribes are called “invisible.” The story of the village located in the area of Xinane creek shows that, with such a lack of respect, they may do well to stay far away from the lenses and the gazes of the white man.

[Note: José Murilo Júnior offers commentary, in English, on this case and the recent Eletrobras confrontation over the Xingu hydroelectric project.]

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