In June 2007, I wrote about the late Joey R B Lozano, a courageous Filipino journalist and activist who fought for human rights and environmental justice at tremendous risk to his life.
For three decades, Joey survived dangerous missions to defend human rights using his video camera in the Philippines, a country known for one of the highest numbers of journalists killed in the line of duty. Joey went into hiding numerous times, and he dodged two assassination attempts.
Last week, a leading Filipino academic and social activist called for greater protection for local level journalists who cover social and environmental justice issues risking their life and limbs.
“Things are pretty savage at the grassroots level in some of our countries. Journalists who investigate and uncover the truth take enormous personal risks – the vested interests hire killers to eliminate such journalists,” said Professor Walden Bello, executive director of the Focus on the Global South (photo, below).
He was speaking at the Greenaccord Media Forum on 10 November 2007 in Frascati, Rome, where several dozen journalists covering environmental issues had gathered for a four-day meeting.
He delivered an insightful survey of social movements across Asia on environmental and public health issues, where he questioned the role of elites in the global South in standing up for what is right and fair for all people.
During question time, I asked him how he saw the media playing a role in social movements that he’d just described. It varied from country to country, he said, and gave several examples.
In China, most environmental exposes in recent years have been made by ‘very brave journalists’. Their investigations have compelled the local and central authorities to address the massive incidents of pollution and environmental degradation resulting from China’s economic march forward.
In South Asia, the record is uneven. Indian publications like The Hindu newspaper and Frontline magazine are at the forefront in reporting and analysing ‘almost exhaustively’ on environmental struggles in the world’s largest democracy.
In contrast, Singapore and Malaysia have no critical mass media to turn the spotlight on excesses or lapses, he said. In these countries, journalists as well as activists have turned to the web to express themselves — but even they are under pressure from their governments.
In Thailand, the two English language newspapers The Nation and Bangkok Post have both have a long tradition of covering environmental issues and supporting mass movements. A number of Thai language newspapers also have sustained coverage.
In his native Philippines, Prof Bello singled out the Philippine Daily Enquirer for persisting with environmental coverage and exposing environment related scandals. But that comes with its own risks.
“At the local levels, journalists who take up these issues face many threats, including the very real risk of extra-judicial killings. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world today for independent journalists and human rights activists,” he added.
Journalists living in the provinces and reporting from the grassroots are more vulnerable than those based in the cities. This is precisely why local journalists need greater support and protection to continue their good work.
The local elites and officials would much rather silence such journalists. International solidarity for such journalists could make a big difference, Prof Bello said.
He had a suggestion for his hosts, Greenaccord, which annually organises what is now the world’s largest annual gathering of journalists and activists concerned about the environment: Invite and involve more local level journalists in the future forums.
That will give them a voice, and strengthen their resolve to continue the very important work they do.