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MEDIA: Indigenous Journalists Seek Identity

ALTA, Norway, Oct 8 2007 (IPS) - Just weeks after giving up her post, the former president of the parliament of Norway&#39s indigenous Sami people has lambasted Sami journalists for shoving aside their culture in the rush to get a &#39scoop&#39.

Aili Keskitalo told an international conference organised by Sami media organisations that reporters had "violated" personal limits during her tenure, including when she was hospitalised with a brain stroke and when it was rumoured that she was pregnant. "This leads me to the question: is this Sami journalism or a bad copy (of mainstream journalism)," asked the former president, who delivered the critique with a smile as keynote speaker at the opening of the conference &#39Same Voice, But Different&#39 in northern Norway, Sami territory.

"My experience is that Sami media want to publish the most juicy and dramatic details, maybe to impress the Norwegian media," added Keskitalo, who was speaking to about 40 indigenous journalists from around the world in Alta, a town of 20,000 people above the Arctic Circle. She resigned as the first Sami woman president, after serving just two years of a four-year term, reportedly because of protracted disputes with her vice-president.

The Sami, Europe&#39s only indigenous people, are native to what are now Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. Best known as reindeer herders, about half of today&#39s Sami population of 80,000 lives in Norway.

Some journalists at the conference readily admitted that they often find themselves agonising over whether to publicise some news or shelve it to protect their community. "You have a vested interest in the future of your own people …the information that you uniquely have access to as a tribal member, you have to weigh" (whether or not to publicise it), said Ronnie Washines from Yakama Nation Multimedia Services in Washington State in the United States.

A member of the Native American Journalist Association, Washines added that leaders of indigenous communities are notorious for trying to limit freedom of indigenous media. But today they "are beginning to understand that trying to keep secrets is no way for the tribe to advance. If that means being open to everyone, then that&#39s a risk worth taking."

The indigenous media conference, which ended Sunday, brought together journalists from the Nordic countries and other European nations, North America, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Many participants said the organisations they represent are hoping to boost the sharing of indigenous peoples stories from around the world. "We already have collaboration with Sami broadcasting, Maori broadcasting (from New Zealand) and the Aboriginal Peoples TV Network, in Canada," said Pia Christensen, head of news at Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa in Greenland, adding, "we want it to be more regular."

Like other indigenous media organisations, Christensen&#39s has been limited by resources. "On our side most of the problems (with collaboration) have been technical – our equipment was never really updated. But in May we went digital, so it&#39s much easier now," she said in an interview.

In her speech, former president Keskitalo also asked if Sami journalists "always choose the easy way out?" For example, instead of approaching members of the Norwegian parliament with tough questions about the importance they give to Sami issues, reporters constantly go after Sami parliamentarians – who have less decision-making power – with those questions, she suggested.

Norway&#39s Sami Parliament, which sat for the first time in 1989, acts mainly as an adviser on issues to the Norwegian Parliament: it also administers some of the money provided for Sami affairs by the Norwegian state. Sweden and Finland have also established Sami parliaments.

Sami journalists appeared to accept at least some of the ex-president&#39s criticism. The president "was very correct. We have been following her. I was the first one who reported that she was pregnant – but I contacted her first to confirm it; she was happy I did that," said Liv Inger Somby, a journalist at Sami Radio, a division of Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

Inger added that she is willing to publicise issues that she knows are likely to upset the Sami community, and she spends a lot of time deciding how to present those stories while minimising the hurt. "I hear people say &#39we have to protect our people. Why are you discussing these things&#39? As a journalist it&#39s my job to tell the negative as well as the positive news; it&#39s my job to explain why this is happening here," she added in an interview.

The veteran Sami journalist described reporting on the court case of the deputy mayor of a Sami community, who had sex with a 16-year-old girl. During the trial, the girl testified that she had had sex with 17 different men. "It was such a sad story," remembered Inger. "I was thinking, as a Sami journalist do I have to report all these details to all the Sami people?"

"In the end I avoided the details. I decided to tell the story of how this man used the girl," she recalled. However, reporters from the national media publicised the details, which resulted in a probe by the media ombudsman. The ombudsman "decided that we were the only ones who didn&#39t do anything wrong," said Inger.

*Marty Logan is a former IPS journalist who now works with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal.

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