Observer journalist threatens to sue Survival over uncontacted tribes story

July 1, 2008

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The British journalist who wrongly reported that the story of an uncontacted tribe which has been known of for years had been ‘told and sold’ as if it had only just been discovered, sparking press stories around the world of a ‘hoax’, has now threatened to sue Survival International for trying to correct his mistake.

In a phone message to a Survival staff member on 27th June, Peter Beaumont, Foreign Affairs Editor of the British newspaper The Observer, said, ‘I'm getting extremely irritated about the way in which you’re associating me with the allegation that you may have been responsible for a hoax. If you use that word once more… I will be taking legal action and I will sue you for defamation or libel.’

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The photos of an uncontacted tribe living near the Brazil-Peru border attracted worldwide coverage when Survival released them several weeks ago. They were taken by a Brazilian government official to refute claims that such people do not exist. Illegal logging in Peru is the greatest threat to the uncontacted tribes of the region.
On 22 June Mr Beaumont reported that the tribe had been wrongly described as ‘undiscovered’ when its existence had been known of for many years, and that the Brazilian official and Survival had now ‘admitted’ and ‘conceded’ this.  

In fact, neither the Brazilian government nor Survival has ever claimed that the tribe was ‘undiscovered’ or ‘unknown’.  They said only that the tribe was ‘uncontacted’, which was correct.  They have ‘admitted’ and ‘conceded’ nothing, because there is nothing to admit or concede.  

Mr Beaumont’s article has sparked a wave of damaging media coverage which describes the photos as a ‘hoax’, a ‘stunt’, a ‘joke’ and a ‘fake’. Some reports have said that the photos were ‘staged’.  

The Observer has since said that it did not intend to present the photos as a hoax, or to suggest that Survival had made ‘any admission of any kind’. It has offered to print a letter it was sent by Survival before other newspapers had picked up on Mr Beaumont’s piece, which therefore did not address the allegations that have now been made.  It has refused, however, to publish a correction.  

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival, said today, ‘This is the first time in 39 years that a journalist has threatened to take legal proceedings against us. What makes it all the more astonishing is that the wave of reports precipitated by Mr Beaumont’s article has seriously undermined the fight for tribal peoples’ rights. So far from taking responsibility for the inaccuracies of his piece, he’s going to sue us unless we keep quiet! It might reflect better on The Observer if they simply acknowledged that they had got it wrong, and that our original story was completely accurate.’

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Read more about the Observer journalist’s legal threat

Watch Survival’s short film ‘Uncontacted Tribes’