Australian TV broadcaster Channel Seven has lost a three-year-long legal battle against the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The battle finally came to an end after Channel Seven lost an appeal in the federal court and was ordered to pay the legal costs of ACMA.
The legal battle stems from a 2011 documentary broadcast detailing the indigenous Brazilian Suruwaha people. The broadcast has been described as a “racist portrayal” of the tribe which violated the television code of practice‘s requirement that broadcasts be fair, balanced, and factually correct. The broadcast would also, according to federal court judge Justice Buchanan, “be likely to provoke or perpetuate intense dislike and serious contempt of and for the Suruwaha tribe and its members.”
The broadcast featured adventurer and writer Paul Raffaele accompanying journalist Tim Noonan through the Amazon. In the program, Noonan and Raffaele alleged that the tribe carry out “one of the worst human rights violations in the world” by encouraging the killing of disabled children “in the most gruesome way possible.” They claimed that disabled children and those born to single mothers were fed, while still living, to wild beasts by the tribe.
Complaints about both the factual accuracy and the tone of these reports were first raised by Survival International, an international organisation that advocates for the rights of tribal people. The organisation formally complained to ACMA after Channel Seven did not correct or retract the many “errors and distortions” that they had highlighted in the broadcast’s allegations of child murder. Channel Seven described the claims made by Survival International as “nonsense” and defended the broadcast, but ACMA found that the allegations of routine child killing were in breach of factual accuracy requirements. Channel Seven challenged this decision through a Judicial Review, but the challenge proved unsuccessful as the court upheld the original judgement.
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, compared the broadcast to “19th-century colonialist scorn for ‘primitive savages'” designed to “suggest that they don’t deserve any rights.”
The Suruwaha tribe was formed from an amalgamation of members from other tribes who fled the devastation wreaked on the region by global demand for rubber. Members of the tribe who have seen the broadcast are said to be angry. Members of the tribe have also claimed that they were asked to remove their everyday, Western-style clothing for the cameras, and in the final broadcast this had the effect of making them look more primitive and less connected to the outside world.