Land Rights News Promotes Cause of Aboriginal People


WHICH newspaper would you turn to for the nuances of government policy on land rights for Aboriginal people? Need to know last year's winners of the Aboriginal Art Awards? Want to know which mining companies have been granted concessions to explore for minerals on tribal lands?

It's unlikely you will find any of this information in the mainstream media. Instead, it's in Land Rights News, whose motto is "One Mob, One Voice, One Land." Land Rights is a five-year-old newspaper focused on Aboriginal life and issues. In a tabloid format, the paper is published between four and six times a year. It costs $2 (US$1.50) per issue and boasts an international readership among its 22,500 unaudited circulation. In 1988 it won a Special Citation in the United Nations Media Peace Awards.

The newspaper is read in Canberra, the capital, by government decisionmakers who receive complimentary papers. Robert Tickner, minister for Aboriginal Affairs, says the paper provides "a strong voice for Aboriginal people." It is sold at some bookstores in major cities, but the two major news distribution companies do not distribute it.

Most of the circulation is among Aboriginal communities who receive the publication for free. The bush circulation gives the editors a major challenge, since many Aborigines don't read English. "We get the complaint that it's a great newspaper, but there are many people here who can't read it," says Rosanne Brennan, a former assistant director of the Northern Land Council, based in Darwin.

Chips Mackinolty, a former worker on the paper, says the decision not to write down to the audience was made when the paper first began. "The newspaper fulfills different functions - it's a journal of record, a resource for journalists, a magazine," he says. "This is not written for kids but for people with an intellect and things to say," he adds.

To increase the readership, the editors have included some stories in native languages such as Yolngu-maha or Arrernte. And the newspaper has a color cover, often of an Aboriginal painting, and large photo spreads, which Mr. Mackinolty says are popular.

The paper started because Aboriginal leaders felt the media was not adequately covering its concerns regarding land rights. The Northern and Central Land Councils, organizations responsible for negotiating and acquiring land for the indigenous people, decided to start their own paper.

"Initially the paper started to give people the other view. At the time there was only one newspaper, the Northern Territory News, which is a [Rupert] Murdoch paper and very supportive of the territory government," says Mrs. Brennan. Land Rights also includes several pages on land rights around the world. Many of the international stories are obtained from the Third World Network, which features indigenous struggles around the world.

The newspaper's political bias is pro-Aboriginal. "We blast everybody," says David Ross, director of the Central Land Council and co-editor of the paper. But it does publish a voting guide for federal and territory elections. "It is billed as ... the things politicians are threatening or promising and this is where the Land Council stands," Mackinolty says.

The editors are also quick to correct stereotypes about Aboriginal people. The major media has covered the dispute over mining at Coronation Hill in the Northern Territory. After heated discussions, the federal government decided against allowing any mining there. The public impression was that Aborigines did not want any mining. Land Rights, however, has been running stories about exploration contracts signed by the traditional land owners. In fact, one of Australia's richest gold mines recently opened in the Tanami Desert on Aboriginal land.

The paper is quick to let decisionmakers know how it feels about pending legislation. In 1986 the newspaper reported Aboriginal opposition to proposed national land-rights legislation. Although the legislation would have helped native communities in other states, it would have weakened the rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. The Aboriginal opposition helped to halt the proposed ruling.

Mr. Tickner says his main criticism of the newspaper would be its reactive nature. "I would like to see Aboriginal organizations more on the front foot," says Tickner. But Mr. Ross says, "It's difficult to take the initiative when we are busy trying to maintain the rights we enjoy now."

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