Threats to Environmental Journalists on the Rise

In Copenhagen, press freedom groups call for action

COPENHAGEN—Cherelle Jackson turned a deaf ear to the threatening calls she got after publishing the first two parts of a story about a government-sponsored development project that was proceeding despite the misgivings of an environmental impact assessment. But, when someone set her office on fire a little over two years ago, the twenty-seven-year-old Samoan reporter fled to New Zealand without publishing the third part.

“In small countries it’s really easy to access people,” she said Friday at the international climate summit here, walking and talking as she rushed to a press conference about threats to environmental journalists. “Part of your job is to deal with the threat. So, I usually ignore the calls, but the burning down of my office is not easy to ignore.”

The number of environmental journalists that are being attacked and threatened is growing, according to twenty-six press freedom organizations who sponsored the press conference. A representative of Reporters Without Borders said fifteen percent of the cases that the group monitors worldwide are now linked to the environment. Other watchdog groups have also found that stories exposing environmental degradation wrought by governments, industry, mafia organizations, and even small-time polluters are increasingly risky for environmental reporters.

“The fact is that more and more journalists are being harassed and even killed for covering environmental issues,” said Jesper Hojberg, the director of International Media Support (IMS). “Without a free press and corporations will not be compelled to join the fight of global warming. Journalists must be free to investigate, and then must have access to the facts.”

Reporters Without Borders, IMS, Internews, and the International Institute for Environment and Development presented a call to action (pdf) on behalf of twenty-six international, regional, and national press freedom organizations, stating:

Media and press freedom organisations call on the world’s leaders to reaffirm their pledge to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and urge all governments to practice transparency in access to information and to protect journalists reporting on environmental issues and climate change…

Efforts to combat pollution will be severely weakened if environmental journalists and activists are not free to investigate. Illegal logging will not be revealed, much less halted, if reporters are arrested when they take an interest in the story. Likewise, limiting and monitoring CO2 emissions will be difficult if not impossible if the media are not independent of vested interests and hidden agendas.

In a study (pdf) published in September, Reporters Without Borders listed the names of dozens of reporters who have faced some sort of violence for writing and reporting about the environment. Russian journalist Grogory Pako spent four years in prison for revealing that the Navy was dumping radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan. Uzbek journalist Solidzhon Abdurkakhmanov was sentenced to ten years for writing about the destruction of the Aral Sea. In Egypt, Tamer Mabrouk was sued for libel and fired from his job when he blogged that Trust Chemical Industries was dumping untreated water into the Suez Canal.

“[Threats against journalists covering the environment] are not new, but their number is growing,” said Vincent Brossel, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia desk. “When the journalists are exposing companies and local governments that’s when they are in trouble. A few years back it was just a few cases per year. Now, for three years, fifteen percent of the cases we monitor around the world are linked with environmental issues [like] logging, pollution and impacts of climate change.”

In southern China, for instance, foreign journalists have been chased out of villages where most of the world’s discarded computers are stripped apart in an environmentally disastrous manner. The Reporters Without Borders study also found that local populations often support polluters because they provide jobs.

Logging and deforestation are the danger zones in environmental reporting, Brossel said. Filipino journalist Joey Estriber, who often criticized intensive logging in the Aurora province northeast of Manila on his radio show, was kidnapped in 2006 and is still missing. He is presumed to be dead. Another recent case involved Lucio Flavio Pinto, the founder of Journal Pessoal, a Brazilian bimonthly newsletter based in Belem, who received thirty-three lawsuits when he published a series of reports on deforestation in the Amazon.

In Copenhagen, the REDD (a controversial proposal otherwise known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is being debated as a means to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in developing countries. If a plan is enacted on that front, many more journalists will surely find themselves tracking whether or not the governments of developing countries are living up to forest conversation goals.

“We have delegations coming here … claiming that they will commit to fight against climate change,” Brossel said. “But when we look at the [implementation] details in their respective countries … there is a big difference [between rhetoric and practice].”

Pointing out that China has restricted journalists’ movement around the Himalayas, Brossel asked, “Why do journalists have to ask for special permits to go to this region? They should be able to travel freely to see the impacts of climate change on Tibetans.”

During protests at the Copenhagen climate summit over the weekend, a photographer with Investigate West, an online environmental news start-up, was arrested along with about 275 other demonstrators. According to a post on the Investigate West’s Web site, police officers detained the photographer—twenty-seven-year-old Christopher Crow—“despite his colleagues’ protest that he was only carrying out his duty as a journalist to document the unrest in the streets.” Three other journalists with Investigate West “were covering the protest, but were able to get away before police moved in wielding batons and police dogs to make arrests.”

“This is an outrageous affront to the freedom of the press. Reporters are obligated to cover civil disturbances like the protests in Copenhagen, and police who arrest journalists are violating their human rights,” said Investigate West’s editor, Rita Hibbard, according to the post. “Christopher and InvestigateWest are owed an apology by the Danish authorities and we will be filing a formal protest.”

For her part, Cherelle Jackson recently returned to Samoa from her short exile in New Zealand and decided to start her own publication, Environment Weekly. “I’ve gone more independent and I am fighting for environmental justice,” she said.

Going forward, her focus will be on climate change because, like all island states, Samoa is especially vulnerable to the rising sea level. Under such circumstances, it might seem like national governments in the developing world would welcome coverage about how climate change is taking a toll on their homelands.

“[But] it works both ways,” Jackson said. “It’s okay when it serves their purpose. But if you write against them then you’re at risk.”

At the press conference, Jackson stood up and asked the press freedom organizations there why groups like theirs don’t exist in her part of the world. “There are journalists in the South Pacific, too,” she said.

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Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, and The Daily Beast.