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Copiapo, where the fate of 33 miners became a media circus

Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2010-10-13

After more than two months underground, 33 trapped Chilean miners are set to return to the surface this week, with the world's media ready to greet them. But it's not only the miners who are looking for a share of the spotlight.

In a matter of hours, 33 Chilean miners are set to be unearthed from their 700-metre-deep chamber before the world’s eyes. The men, who were buried alive on August 6 as the mine they were working in collapsed, have become national heroes. Their rescue is already legendary and has sparked a frenzy of international media coverage in one of the most desolate corners of the world.

The mine, located in the bare hills of the Atacama desert in northern Chile, now hosts television and radio studios. “Camp hope", a tent city first founded by the miners’ families, has swelled to include hundreds of journalists from across the globe, and now produces about six tonnes of garbage a day, according to AFP.

The 33 miners have become, in spite themselves, a spectacle for Chileans and the world, and a bonanza for media and politicians.

Round the clock coverage

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a specialist on Chile at the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), says the enthusiasm is unsurprising. "Mining is the country’s greatest industry. Copper is something like Chile’s oil, the state’s first source of wealth,” Kourliandsky explains. “Mining is a popular and well respected profession. The [trapped] miners’ fate has captivated Chileans.”

“The atmosphere is surreal,” says Alexis Masciarelli, FRANCE 24 special correspondent in Copiapo, the city closest to the mine. “I've almost never seen so many journalists - there are almost as many as for an event like the G8. The cameras are recording images 24 hours a day.” According to Tomas Urzua, a government official in charge of the press, there are approximately 700 accredited journalists on site, 400 of them Chileans.

Faced with this media frenzy, Copiapo has done its best to meet the demands of journalists. “The city has installed a wireless Internet and built a platform next to the pits to allow the swarm of journalists to shoot the first rescue images,” says Masciarelli.

From television to Hollywood

According to the Chilean press, television stations are fighting over the tiniest parcel of land near the mine pits, with nearly all the cameras concentrated in only 100 square metres. “All around us, there is nothing, it is a moonscape. So imagine a bouquet of satellite dishes in the middle of nowhere,” says Masciarelli.

Extra police presence has been required. Several security checkpoints have been set up near the pits, and the area is continuously monitored by rifle-touting police in the surrounding hilltops.

Over the last few days, psychologists and communication experts have been taking turns to prepare miners for the media deluge that will follow their re-emergence. The miners have received shotgun training for the impending interviews.

"I must admit that we are all waiting; there is not much to report on, so at the slightest move of one of the family members, we all rush to tell the same thing,” says Masciarelli. Time magazine reported that miners' families are being offered thousands of dollars for interviews.

Time also reported that HBO, the Discovery Channel and four other production groups are already working on documentaries on the miners’ odyssey. Chilean director Rodrigo Ortuzar has started filming at the mining site for a feature-length movie entitled “The 33”, which he has said could be ready as early as 2012.

Besides the media frenzy, Copiapo has also had to manage the arrival of gifts, small and large, from the miners’ worldwide fan-base. Some of the most notable gifts include signed Real Madrid football shirts, and 7,600 euro cheques for each miner from Chilean mining magnate Leonardo Farkas.

Politicians benefit

Farkas is not the only Chilean to have made a very public showing of his interest in the miners. Laurence Golborne, the new mining minister under President Sebastian Pinera, who was until recently relatively unknown, has become one of the main protagonists in the rescue drama. “A Chilean pollster says his popularity rating has hit 87 percent,” says Chile analyst Kourliandsky.

President Pinera’s own standing has also benefited from the ordeal. Much criticised for the slow pace of reconstruction after the earthquake that rocked Chile in February, Pinera has been omnipresent at the rescue site. “He has made himself the site’s foreman, he regularly checks in on the progress, and is ever-present at every stage of the dig,” says Kourliandsky.

Kourliandsky adds that the rescue efforts, and the media hype, have helped Pinera divert attention away from his government’s land dispute with Mapuche Indians –a divisive issue in Chile. Enjoying the unprecedented attention of the media, Pinera has not stopped invoking what he calls a newfound sense of Chilean patriotism and brotherhood.

Date created : 2010-10-12


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