Outrage at ‘Freakshow TV’ as reporter brands Amazon tribe child murderers

March 6, 2012

Paul Raffaele said a Suruwaha girl refused to shake his hand because she wanted to kill him. In fact, he was wearing so much sun cream the Suruwaha thought he had a skin disease. © Channel 7

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An Australian TV report which branded an Amazon tribe as child murderers; a ‘suicide cult’ from the ‘Stone Age’; and the ‘worst human rights violators in the world’ has become the first target of a new Survival campaign against the racist depiction of tribal people on TV.

The ‘Freakshow TV’ campaign aims to challenge the depiction of tribal people on TV as primitive, backward savages.

The broadcast on Australia’s Channel 7 Sunday Night show featured ‘adventurer’ Paul Raffaele and reporter Tim Noonan visiting Brazil’s Suruwaha tribe.

The Suruwaha have already been targeted by fundamentalist missionaries, who falsely say they regularly kill newborn babies. The missionaries have lobbied Brazil’s Congress to pass a law allowing Indian children to be removed from their families.

The Indians allowed the Channel 7 team into their territory after Mr Raffaele said he wanted to film a ‘positive report’.

But their report has generated a firestorm of protests, with Survival International’s Director denouncing it as ‘one of the most biased, misleading and disgusting reports we’ve ever seen’.

The broadcast described the Indians as ‘a true suicide cult’; a ‘Stone Age’ people; and ‘lost in time’. The tribe is said to ‘encourage the murder of disabled children…in the most gruesome way possible’; take ‘poor little innocent babes into the jungle to be eaten alive by wild beasts’; and to be responsible for ‘one of the worst human rights violations in the world’.

The report portrays the Suruwaha as the 'worst human rights violators in the world'. © Adriana Huber/Survival

The report’s website is also openly fundraising for an evangelical organization associated with the anti-Indian campaign.

Survival wrote to Channel 7 outlining the many errors and distortions in the report, but the Channel has rejected all the accusations. Australia’s broadcasting regulator ACMA has now opened a formal investigation.

Raffaele, previously a writer for Smithsonian Magazine, has been in trouble before – for a very similar Channel 9 report in 2006, in which he claimed a Papuan boy was in danger of being eaten by his tribe, who Raffaele described as ‘Stone Age cannibals’. The broadcast was widely attacked by experts, with Mr Raffaele reportedly admitting later that he had even misidentified the boy’s tribe.

Web giant Yahoo! is in partnership with Channel 7 in Australia. Survival has written to Yahoo! urging them to remove the report from their website, but has received no reply.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘It’s freakshow TV at its very worst. The Indians are made out to be cruel and inhuman monsters, in the spirit of 19th century colonialist scorn for ‘primitive savages’. It’s clearly designed to have the same effect – to suggest that they don’t deserve any rights. The idea that such nonsense is supposed to help tribal children is breathtaking.’

A Suruwaha boy bathes a young baby in a stream. © Armando Soares Filho/FUNAI/Survival

Survival has written a set of ethical guidelines to help filmmakers work responsibly with tribal peoples. It is also using its Stamp it Out campaign to challenge racist depictions, however unwitting, in the media.

Note to Editors: Forms of infanticide are found in all societies, including industrialized ones. The practice is rare and dying out amongst Amazon Indians. Survival opposes non-consensual practices, however ‘traditional’, which hurt or kill people. This includes infanticide.

Download a Survival briefing sheet on the proposed ‘Muwaji’s law’, the result of a campaign in Brazil by the fundamentalist missionary organization JOCUM (pdf, 70 KB). JOCUM are the Brazilian branch of the US organization Youth with a Mission.

Download a briefing sheet on what experts and Indians say about JOCUM’s infanticide allegations (pdf, 49 KB).

Download Survival’s letter to Channel 7 (pdf, 217 KB).

Download statements from Suruwaha Indians about the Channel 7 report (pdf, 33 KB).

Download a Survival briefing sheet on the Suruwaha tribe (pdf, 37 KB).