Digital TV threat to Indigenous languages

November 18, 2011

Language and education specialists are concerned the federal government’s national roll-out of digital television will have a detrimental effect on the preservation and transmission of Aboriginal languages and cultures.

In 1987, the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) was established to balance the introduction of mainstream TV channels (via satellite) into remote communities with some local control and ability to broadcast local content.

Typically, this meant communities had free-to-air access to between two and four mainstream channels, plus Aboriginal-content channels such as National Indigenous Television (NITV) and Indigenous Community Television (ICTV). A lot of ICTV’s content is in Aboriginal languages, and is produced by Aboriginal people in their own communities.

Apart from NITV and ICTV, BRACS also allowed individual communities to broadcast local content.

In her joint testimony to the inquiry with Dr William Fogarty, Dr Inge Kral, a research fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, emphasised the central role multimedia technologies, specifically video production, play in contemporary remote Aboriginal life.

“Where young people have access to resources they are engaging in digital cultural heritage projects and creative cultural multimedia and music production for broadcasting, festivals and enterprise,” she said.

“Importantly, such activities commonly incorporate Indigenous languages.

“Here young adults are exhibiting pride in Indigenous language and culture and modelling of purpose for mother tongue and English language literacy for the next generation.”

With almost total unemployment in remote communities, and limited formal education opportunities beyond school, boredom is a huge factor, particularly for young people. Increasingly, community media and resource centres are becoming places of informal learning, cultural expression and language maintenance.

Kral pointed to the popularity of music recording software, which will often also inspire young musicians to film music clips, design CD covers and upload resources to the web.

The ability for such youth-initiated, local content to be broadcast to the community in turn fosters cultural pride and encourages further engagement and activity.

But the digital TV roll-out threatens this flowering informal Aboriginal media industry.

The roll-out, Kral said, will undermine communities’ broadcasting ability, as direct satellite-to-home technology replaces the current community-based transmitters. She told the inquiry: “Remote communities will have 16 channels of mainstream, monolingual, monocultural English language TV and no Indigenous services. This will lead to an onslaught of Western English language images and cultural content.

“It will see an undermining of the motivation for Indigenous youth to participate in activities and training leading to a potential area of employment in the enterprise generation. It will also impact on Indigenous language and culture maintenance and it will hinder one important means by which community pride in Indigenous languages is generated.”

The Indigenous Remote Communications Association (IRCA), in an October submission to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, noted: “For many remote Indigenous people, convergence spells an increasing threat to their fragile linguistic and cultural world, with Western media and values distracting young people from gaining cultural knowledge.

“They feel like a tsunami of mainstream media and communications is bearing down upon them via the internet, 16 channels of digital TV and new media platforms.”

In September, communications minister Stephen Conroy announced SBS and NITV would enter discussions about a possible merger. If successful, this could ensure the continuation of NITV, and mean it was accessed by more people, as it is currently not a free-to-air service.

But some argue NITV, while valuable, cannot replace local community-produced content.

IRCA said: “NITV tends not be popular in most remote communities with the programming, typically in English with urban presenters, not regarded by remote viewers as reflective of their experience, views and cultural identity.”

IRCA has also pointed out, in Joining the Dots: Dreaming a Digital Future for Remote Indigenous Media, that the benefits of direct-to-home TV technology assume a particular way of accessing media — a particular way of life — that doesn’t necessarily apply to remote Aboriginal communities: typically, people move from house to house, watch television outside in large groups, use extension leads to take TVs to sorry camps away from the house.

Remote Aboriginal people — particularly young people — are embracing new technologies at an impressive rate. Far from this signalling a threat to their language and culture, research is proving that new technologies are being adapted and used to maintain, share and develop cultural and linguistic heritage.

For this to continue, it is vital that any technological upgrades do not come at the expense of local control of content, linguistic diversity and equal access to content production.

Young Aboriginal people are showing that embracing the digital age is not at odds with celebrating and expressing one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth.

Can the digital TV roll-out improve their access to technology without sacrificing their control over it?

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