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.

Attack on Sirasa TV: Who wants to create a headless Sri Lankan nation?

Sri Lanka's most popular channel and ratings-leader

Sirasa TV: Sri Lanka's most popular channel and ratings-leader

‘Sirasa’ literally means ‘head’ in Sinhala. In the past 15 years, ‘Sirasa’ has also emerged as one of the most popular brands in Sri Lanka. It is the flagship name of Sri Lanka’s leading private TV broadcaster, MTV Channel (Private) Limited.

Sri Lankans woke up last morning to the disturbing news that their Sirasa was on fire. In the early hours of 6 January 2009, Sirasa group’s main studio and transmission complex was attacked, ransacked and bombed. A heavily armed and masked gang of around 20 persons had stormed the premises, located in Pannipitiya just outside Colombo, held the night staff at gunpoint and destroyed the main control room.

According to news reports, the attackers fled after inflicting targeted damage to the station’s nerve centre. They were not detected or apprehended in spite of Colombo being under heavy police protection to guard against terrorist attacks.

Within hours, the attack was widely condemned by local and international groups. It also sparked intense discussion and debate online as to who did it, and why. One blogger, who was particularly active on the topic, noted: “The culprits were not identified. The motives were apparent. Somebody badly wants to silence Sirasa TV.”

too little, too late? Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Crime investigation: too little, too late? Image courtesy Daily Mirror

That much is clear: here was yet another case of shooting the messenger, a worrying trend that has become almost entrenched in parts of South Asia. Never mind the information content and its analysis; just attack – and hopefully silence – the messenger bearing bad news.

In other words, 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.

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the attack. “Violence and threats against such privately-owned media outlets and journalists trying to impartially report on the conflict must stop,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “The government must quickly find and punish those responsible for this latest attack and see the network is compensated.

It added: “The attack seems to be because its coverage was not ‘patriotic’ enough. The network is one of the country’s few, and very popular, independent news sources. The incident recalls the November 2007 attack on the Leader Publication printing works, for which nobody has been punished.”

RSF also noted that the MTV/Sirasa network has been criticised “for not giving enough air-time to recent government victories over the rebels, with state-run media outlets accusing it of reporting a suicide attack in Colombo on 2 January, the day the army captured the rebel capital of Kilinochchi, in northern Sri Lanka. A bomb was thrown at the network’s offices just after news of the government victory was broadcast.”

In late 2008, RSF had ranked Sri Lanka among the bottom 10 countries for its media freedom. At No 165 among 173 countries assessed, Sri Lanka is in the company of Cuba, Burma, North Korea, China and Iran. (Interestingly, the latter two are among Sri Lanka’s key donors of bilateral aid or credit.)

Attacking the untamed and pluralistic media is characteristic of these bottom-ranked countries and their intolerant regimes. That is what happened to Geo TV network in Pakistan in 2007-2008, when it bore news that the military dictator General Musharraf and his cronies didn’t like. In March 2007, the station was broadcasting live images of anti-Musharraf street protests when the riot police stormed the Islamabad offices of Geo, the country’s most popular TV network and caused damage. (In 2008, RSF ranked Pakistan at No 152 among 173 countries for its media freedom.)

Within hours, Musharraf had “apologized for the raid…and indicated that the action had been executed without his approval”. But Hamid Mir, the station’s bureau chief, said that was insufficient. “They (police) wanted to destroy this newsroom…They were trying to send a message to the whole media by attacking Geo TV.”

In some respects, Sirasa TV is Sri Lanka’s own version of Geo TV. The latter’s resolve amidst much adversity from the Pakistan’s military rulers earned it worldwide praise, even if it had to pay a heavy price for such defiance. The station was driven off the air for some time in late 2007, and later its offshore transmissions from Dubai were also suspended under pressure from Pakistani government. But Geo had the last laugh…

Sirasa's branding of 24/7 news

News 1st: Sirasa's branding of 24/7 news

We can only hope that the Sirasa TV situation will not evolve to such drastic levels. Surprising its viewers (and perhaps also its attackers?), the Sirasa group’s television channels managed to get back on their feet within a few hours of the attack – for much of January 6, they ran a combined transmission that showed the extent of damage and aired many and varied comments of politicians, artists, intellectuals and ordinary viewers shocked by this turn of events.

MTV channel head Chevaan Daniel was quoted as saying that “it would be a while before normal programming can be resumed”. He says the current broadcasting set-up was due to the ingenuity of the engineering staff of MTV.

This isn’t the first time Sirasa group has literally risen from the ashes. A fire broke out at the same studio complex on on 6 January 2001, which was not linked to arson, but nevertheless caused massive damage. On that occasion, state-owned TV channel Rupavahini – which lags behind Sirasa TV in Sri Lankan TV ratings by independent market research firms – came to its gutted rival’s help. The one-time monopoly broadcaster loaned some of its transmission facilities to Sirasa to get back on the air, but it took the latter station weeks to resume its regular schedule.

Just a few years later, such inter-station solidarity seems unthinkable. The Sri Lankan broadcast media landscape is now so polarised between those who uncritically support the government, and those who choose to practise the time-honoured principles of journalism, such as consulting multiple sources and accommodating a multitude of opinions. Sirasa group, and its news operation branded as News 1st, operate on this basis: their slogan is ‘we report, you decide’.

Journalists in Colombo protest the attack on Sirasa, 6 January 2009 - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

Journalists in Colombo protest the attack on Sirasa, 6 January 2009 - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

It’s precisely that kind of rational and independent thinking that the attackers on Sirasa would rather not allow. Media and human rights activists have already said that the attack on Sirasa is far more than an act of violence against an individual media organisation. Indeed, it goes far deeper: it’s an attempt to zombify a society, to turn 20 million Sri Lankans into a headless nation that can then be herded, remote-controlled and led in any direction to the beat of war drums…with no one asking irritating questions.

Tragically, sections of the private media have already fallen in line to such an extent that they behave so much like docile school boys and girls. The country has 3 state-owned TV channels and a dozen privately owned channels, all broadcasting signals free to air, and some more cable or DTH channels available to paying subscribers. But this proliferation of channels – the product of (imperfect yet useful) media liberalisation since the early 1990s – has not been matched by a corresponding plurality of views.

If their station logos were suddenly removed, I would find it hard to discern between state TV and some private – and supposedly independent – TV channels!

To be fair, all private channels – both radio and TV – have reasons to mind their step. They operate on broadcast licenses granted on governmental discretion. What I wrote in a commentary in November 2006 still holds: “When it comes to radio and TV broadcasting, private operators are completely at the government’s mercy. The highly discretionary broadcast licensing system has always lacked transparency, accountability and consistency from the time private broadcasting was first permitted in 1992. Since then, several governments have been in office, and while election manifestos regularly promised the creation of a broadcasting authority, such a body has not yet materialised.”

A further attempt to regulate private TV broadcasters in October 2008 was delayed only because media activists petitioned Supreme Court which ordered further study and hearings.

In this turbulent, unfair and unjust media scenario, Sirasa group’s channels have tried hard to uphold the people’s right to information, offering a platform for a diversity of views, and opportunity for public discussion and debate. The station telecasts in three main languages on separate channels: MTV Channel One in English, Sirasa TV in Sinhala and Shakthi TV in Tamil. No other station has such dedicated channels for each of the country’s three official languages. Programme content of the channels includes news, educational programmes, family entertainment, music, sports, teledramas and game shows.

Sirasa group has been an innovator and pathfinder pushing the limits of Sri Lankan broadcasting. For the past decade, it has been a case of the group’s bouquet of radio and TV channels leading and all others struggling to follow. Sirasa innovates; all others emulate or shamelessly copy!

When innovation led to popularity and market domination, that inevitably inspired much jealousy among its less successful rivals. Especially the former monopolists of state radio and state TV have been very bitter about being beaten in their own game by this relatively young, dynamic and innovative channel. I call them tired old aunties without eyeballs. At their age, they need to watch out: too much of sour grapes can cause serious indigestion.

It’s not surprising that, unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas, they should resort to patriotism, the usual last resort of the scoundrel. As RSF noted in its statement: “The state-owned media has recently attacked MTV/MBC for supposedly being “unpatriotic,” which has forced some of its journalists to censor themselves or flee the country.”

Yet amidst all the frustration, envy, finger-pointing and fist-waving, how many of Sirasa’s detractors and competitors have paused to think why Sirasa remains the ratings leader in radio and television broadcasting in Sri Lanka? Why does this channel have such wide appeal among the various ethnic and religious groups who call Sri Lanka home, and from across the social and education spectrum? To begin their search, they might start looking in the mirror.

Meanwhile, the vocal minority of Sirasa’s critics – some of who have already tried to justify the latest attack – would do well to remember that there’s a cheaper, entirely legal and far more civilised way to silence a TV channel they find objectionable or even offensive for one reason or another.

It’s a little gadget called the remote control. Try it once in a while.

Declaration of interest: I consider myself part of Sirasa’s extended family. I have been a regular ‘TV pundit’ on Sirasa airwaves for at least a decade, and in 2008 co-produced a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 which explored choices for creating a more sustainable Sri Lanka over the next 40 years. This doesn’t mean that I uncritically cheer everything they do. As my friends at Sirasa know very well, I don’t always agree with them, but we respect each other’s right to hold differing opinions.