When green stories make some see red: who protects the reporters?

Who says environment is a ‘safe’ subject for journalists and broadcasters to cover?

Journalist colleagues who work on conflict, security and political topics often have an illusion that environmental reporting is a ‘cosy and comfortable beat’ – one that allows reporters to travel to exotic locations, see cuddly animals, relax in pristine environments and generally take things easy.

That might have been the case some years ago, in another century that’s now receding in our memories. But not any longer: there’s as much conflict, intrigue and complexity in many of today’s environmental topics, and covering them can often be hazardous to the courageous journalists who go after them.

Ahmadi: Beaten up for expose

Just ask Ahmadi, a journalist working for Harian Aceh in Indonesia. Together with a fellow journalist, working for News Investigasi in Medan, he recently investigated a flood that had taken place in the Alapan district in April 2010. During their journey, they met some people cutting up logs. The journalists asked workers who owned these logs and were told that they belonged to the Alapan District Police Station and the Alapan Military Sub-District Command. Hmm…

When confronted with this information, a high ranking military officer reacted quickly and sharply: he wanted the whole story suppressed. In defiance, Harian Aceh published the story on 21 May 2010 — which resulted in Ahmadi being assaulted and threatened with death by the same officer.

“Ahmadi joins the long list of journalists who have been targeted for shedding light on deforestation, which is responsible for at least 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” says Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the international watchdog on media freedom.

It says attacks on journalists and bloggers who try to cover any kind of environmental damage are growing steadily all over the world. Among them, those who investigate industrial pollution or the destruction of forests are particularly at risk.

No longer a cosy beat...

This week, on the eve of World Environment Day (5 June), RSF released a new report titled Deforestation and pollution: High-risk subjects. It makes grim reading for all of us who are committed to journalism as if the planet mattered.

It follows and echoes their call last year: “We must defend journalists who expose attacks on the environment”.

The new report, the second of its kind within just a few months from RSF, was prepared with the help of its worldwide network of correspondents. They gathered information about incidents in Indonesia, Argentina, El Salvador, Gabon, India, Azerbaijan, China and Morocco. Behind each of these threats and attacks, there were big corporations, criminal gangs or government officials who had been corrupted by money from mining or logging.

Asia features prominently in the report, which condemns the responsibility of the Vietnamese and Chinese governments in serious press freedom violations that deprive the public of crucial information about cases of pollution or deforestation.

The report describes, for example, the way the government in Hanoi has tried to suppress any debate about the environmental impact of bauxite mines being operated by a Chinese company. A field investigation in Argentina established that journalists are under pressure from both supporters and opponents of a mining project.

Mining companies (Aluminium Corp of China, China Metallurgical Group and the Canadian companies Yamana Gold and Pacific Rim), oil companies (Shell, Addax and Synopec), wood pulp companies (Sinar Mas and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper) and two French multinationals (Bollor and Areva) are all identified in this report as having a direct or indirect role in cases of intimidation or censorship.

This is the second report that RSF has published on this subject. In September 2009, a report titled “The dangers for journalists who expose environmental issues.“, looked at 15 cases of journalists and bloggers who had been killed, attacked, jailed, threatened or censored for covering environmental problems in Russia, Cambodia, Bulgaria and Brazil.

RSF this week reiterated the appeal it launched during last December’s Copenhagen Summit: The media are needed to gather information and disseminate it to the public. Where climate change was concerned, it reminded everyone one, it was the media who helped to establish credible, independent diagnoses of the state of our planet. Their analyses continue to play a crucial role in helping decision-makers to adopt policies and rules that will lead to the desired changes.

On this blog, we have consistently highlighted the need for safeguarding journalists who pursue environmental stories that threaten vested interests within and across borders. For example:

September 2009: Who will protect journalists fighting for a better planet?

November 2007: Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!

In April 2007, we asked: Can journalists save the planet? Yes, they can be front-runners in the world’s attempts to save species, habitats and entire ecosystems. But only if the rest of society protects and stands by them. When our planetary house is on fire, shooting the messenger isn’t going to save anyone.