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.

Wanted: ‘Magic Mirrors’ for a Land of the Blind…

Last chance...?

Here’s a winning idea for a new business venture in these lean times: make an always-agreeable ‘magic’ mirror — and the vane and wicked will beat a path to your door.

Well, at least half the politicians in Sri Lanka would. They’d rather not see their true selves on any mirror.

The magic mirror idea was popularised many years ago by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, whose wicked and vain queen had an unusual mirror that talked back, each time she asked: ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?’.

The queen wasn’t looking for honest answers; she just wanted to hear she was always the prettiest and fairest in the land. (All competition – real and imagined – was dealt with brutally.)

Little has changed, even in this 21st Century. We may not have too many monarchs left in the world, but our uncrowned rulers can be equally vain and ruthless. They are obsessed with self-aggrandizing sycophancy – they’d only tolerate magic mirrors that totally boost their egos.

If I seem to be preoccupied with mirrors, that’s nothing to do with my own vanity. In this digital age, the mirror is still a pretty good metaphor for the media industry that I have been part of, in one way or another, for over 20 years. At its very basic, the media are expected to reflect our society and our times.

But some people don’t like what they see on a true mirror. In 2009, we saw a spate of mirror smashing or media bashing in Sri Lanka. It started on 6 January, when the studio of the Maharaja Television/Broadcasting Network (MTV/MBC, popularly known as Sirasa Group) was attacked by armed gunmen who almost blew up the country’s most popular private broadcast organisation. On 8 January, exactly a year ago today, Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of The Sunday Leader, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work in suburban Colombo.

Sirasa & Lasantha: Refused to be magic mirrors

One year later, both crimes remain unsolved. They have joined a long list of crimes against journalists and media organisations in Sri Lanka, most of which have never led to any prosecution of the perpetrators.

As Reporters Without Borders noted in a statement this week: “The emotion and anger have not gone away in the year since this famous Sri Lankan journalist’s death. The anger is being sustained by the government’s flagrant obstruction of the investigation. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s name and memory will not disappear and, in that sense, those who were behind his murder made a mistake.”

Commenting on the MTV/MBC (Sirasa) attack, I described the typical reaction of the mirror-bashers: “…if you don’t like what you see in the mirror – which is what media is to society – just kick it, shatter it and hammer it into dust so that it won’t reflect anymore. Destroy all the mirrors of the land, and we’ll finally be the fairest and prettiest in the whole world. That seems to be the perverse logic that fuels attacks of this nature.”

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for in the late 1970s cautioned that Lasantha’s murder was the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. As I asked on the day of Lasantha’s emotionally-charged funeral: “Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?”

Owing to these and other threats, pressures and intimidation during the year, Sri Lanka was ranked 162nd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This was the worst ranking of any democratic country. See RSF website section on Sri Lanka.

Back to mirrors. While the true mirrors were getting bashed, those who played being ‘magic mirrors’ have done well for themselves (and are probably laughing all the way to their banks). But that’s not a phenomenon confined to the little island of Sri Lanka. A good part of the US Media did the same under the hawkish Bush Administration, which prompted the cartoon below.

It’s not just ‘Dubya’ who is addicted to such agreeable mirrors. Indeed, for many modern-day rulers, an essential trapping of power involves surrounding themselves with spin doctors, press commissioners and other manipulators or manufacturers of image. In mature democracies, there are certain checks and balances which usually guard against the worst excesses (but there are notable exceptions – look at Italy!).

In immature, fragile or pseudo democracies, mirrors obey the laws of physics (optics) at grave risk to themselves. If you want proof, just talk to the staff of Sirasa or The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka…

Groundviews.org: One year later: A murder unresolved, a government unashamed

Nov 2009 blog post: We need more reflective mirrors in the media!

RSF: Who will protect journalists fighting for a better planet?

RSF: We must defend journalists who fight for the planet

RSF: We must defend journalists who fight for the planet

In November 2007, I wrote a blog post calling for greater protection for local journalists who cover social and environmental justice issues risking their life and limbs.

I quoted the Filipino academic and social activist Professor Walden Bello, as saying: “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.”

Bello, executive director of the Focus on the Global South, further said: “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.”

Last week, Reporters Without Borders echoed this call, saying: “We must defend journalists who expose attacks on the environment”.

The press freedom activist group released a new report titled “The dangers for journalists who expose environmental issues.” It highlights the indifference – and even complicity – of some governments and local authorities that make little attempt to protect journalists who take risks to investigate attacks on the environment.

The report looks at 13 cases of journalists and bloggers who have been killed, physically attacked, jailed, threatened or censored for reporting on the environment, and highlights the need for a free press to tackle ecological challenges.

In countries such as Russia, Cambodia, Brazil or even Bulgaria, in Europe, journalists run considerable risks when they try to alert the world about the misdeeds of those who prey on the environment.

Read the full report online

Read my June 2007 tribute to Joey Lozano, a courageous Filipino journalist who risked his life to fight for environmental and social justice issues

Lasantha Wickramatunga: In Memoriam

Read blog post of 12 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha – and long live Siribiris!

Farewell & fare forward...

Farewell & fare forward...

Saluting the memory of courageous newspaper editor, fearless investigative journalist, jovial human being and my former colleague Lasantha Wickramatunga, Editor in Chief of The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, shot dead by four gunmen within sight of his newspaper office. Today, we lost the real Leader of the Opposition.

RSF: Outrage at fatal shooting of newspaper editor in Colombo
Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, news coverage: Lasantha shot dead
Dying for Journalism: TIME pays tribute to its reporter in Sri Lanka

Himal Southasian tribute: Unbowed and Unafraid

For once, I’m at a loss for words. When prose fails, we must turn to verse which is always more potent.
I remember Martin Niemoeller (image, below).
I remember Niyi Osundare (text, below).
I remember Adrian Mitchell.

This is the second time I have had to cite this poem in this dreadful week

This is the second time I have had to cite this poem in this deadful week

Not My Business
by Niyi Osundare

They picked Akanni up one morning
Beat him soft like clay
And stuffed him down the belly
Of a waiting jeep.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

They came one night
Booted the whole house awake
And dragged Danladi out,
Then off to a lengthy absence.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

Chinwe went to work one day
Only to find her job was gone:
No query, no warning, no probe –
Just one neat sack for a stainless record.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

And then one evening
As I sat down to eat my yam
A knock on the door froze my hungry hand.

The jeep was waiting on my bewildered lawn
Waiting, waiting in its usual silence.