To mark “Earth Overshoot Day,” which lands on 22 August this year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is publishing alarming statistics about journalists who cover environmental stories. At least ten have been killed in the past five years, while more than 50 press freedom violations linked to environment journalism have been registered during the same period.
This is a bad time for environmental journalism, with abuses against its practitioners becoming increasingly frequent, as Brandon Lee knows only too well. A US journalist based in the Philippines reporting for the local weekly Nordis, Lee only just survived a murder attempt in August 2019. Before being ambushed and shot, he said he was “consistently subjected to different threats and harassment, even on social media” in connection with his coverage of environmental issues in the north of the archipelago, “denouncing injustices that every government wants to cover up.”
The attempt to murder Lee is one of a total of 53 violations of the right to cover the environment that RSF has registered since December 2015, when it published a report entitled “Hostile climate for environmental journalists” with a tally of violations specifically targeting journalists working on this issue. The trends identified five years ago have been confirmed. An average of two journalists are murdered every year for investigating deforestation, illegal mining, land seizures, pollution and other environmental impacts from industrial activities and major infrastructural construction projects.
A total of 20 journalists have died in the past decade for covering environmental issues, ten of them in the past five years. Nine of the latter were murdered in cold blood in five countries – Colombia (2), Mexico (1), Philippines (1), Myanmar (1) and India (4). They include Shubham Mani Tripathi, a reporter for the Hindi-language Kampu Mail daily in the Uttar Pradesh state of northern India, who was shot six times - three of them in the head - in June 2020. In a Facebook post shortly before his death, he said he feared being killed by the “sand mafia” for covering land seizures linked to illegal sand mining.
In addition to the nine who were clearly murdered, a journalist died in a suspicious manner while in prison in the Indonesian part of Borneo in 2018. Muhammad Yusuf had been jailed after being accused of defaming a local palm oil company in his coverage of illegal land seizures for two news websites, Kemajuan Rakyat and Berantas News. His wife is convinced he did not die of natural causes because of the bruising found on his corpse, on the back of his neck.
The death toll of the past five years could have been higher. Because of his coverage of the human suffering resulting from the pollution caused by international oil company operations in South Sudan, Nation Media Group reporter Joseph Oduha was harassed, detained, tortured and accused of “endangering national security” before finally fleeing the country in 2019. Similarly, Alberto Castaño and María Lourdes Zimmermann, two journalists who specialized in environmental issues, fled Colombia to avoid being killed. Colombia is a country where two community reporters – Maria Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo and Abelardo Liz – have been murdered in the past three years for covering land privatization by leading business groups, and where death threats on social media are taken very seriously.
"Environmental journalism has become considerably more dangerous than it was the past, and I think much of that is intimately tied up with an increasing awareness of the environment's importance,” says Peter Schwartzstein, a specialist in environmental issues in the Middle East and North Africa and author of a report entitled “The Authoritarian War on Environmental Journalism”. He adds: “As pollution mounts and climate change bites, there's considerably more public awareness about issues that were previously considered largely fringe concerns. That has magnified governments' focus on a part of the media that they previously regarded as a lesser concern."
Asia and Americas – danger zones
While abuses against environmental journalists occur in all of the world’s continents, 66% of those registered took place in two – Asia and the Americas. In Asia, India is the country that holds all the records: for journalists killed (4), for physical attacks (4) and for journalists subjected to threats and prosecution (4). Almost all of these cases are linked to India’s so-called “sand mafia.”
"There is growing awareness globally that sand, after water, is the most precious natural resource and since it is limited in quantity, it is in great demand,” Indian journalist Sandhya Ravishankar said. “When journalists report on such a precious commodity and put pressure on authorities to stop the mining of sand, it is a threat to many powerful industries and industrialists whose livelihoods depend on sand as raw material. This is the reason there is invariably a lot of violence against journalists who report on illegal mining of sand.”
Ravishankar was subjected to an extremely aggressive smear campaign when she investigated the sand mafia in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The harassment orchestrated by the mining companies was such that she ended up being marginalized, including by her fellow journalists. This caused her the “deepest and most lasting” wound, she says.
The "legal" way to silence journalists
The most drastic methods may not be needed to silence journalists. Defamation legislation can often be used to sue or bring criminal proceedings against those who try to expose the truth about the environmental impact of destructive practices by powerful business groups. Nine of these journalists have been the targets of recent judicial proceedings around the world.
They include Pratch Rujivanarom, a journalist who was prosecuted under Thailand’s criminal code and Computer Crimes Act in 2017 after writing an article for The Nation, a Thai English-language daily, about water pollution resulting from the activities of MPC, a big mining company. The company eventually withdrew its complaint because his reporting was so well researched.
Inès Léraud, a French freelancer who investigates the environmental impacts of intensive farming in Brittany, including the proliferation of green seaweed on its beaches and the attempts to cover up the causes, has been sued twice in the past two years. The first lawsuit – brought by a leading Breton agro-industrialist who did not hesitate to denigrate her directly by email and on the radio – was finally withdrawn a few days before a court was due to begin hearing it in January 2020.
Environmental journalists charged with criminal defamation are usually acquitted but some end up spending years in prison. Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, the author of many articles about the impact of the Aral Sea environmental disaster, spent nine years behind bars in Uzbekistan, until finally released in 2017. Carlos Choc is facing the possibility of 20 to 30 years in prison for denouncing the pollution of a lake by the mining company CGN-Pronico in Guatemala. It was only after 22 years of defamation proceedings that reporter Shailendra Yashwant, his editor, Ramoji Rao, and Sanctuary Features editor Bittu Sahgal were finally acquitted in 2018 over an article for Newstime about chemical effluent polluting a river in the Indian state of Gujarat.
The most common press freedom violation experienced by environmental reporters is arrest by the police. Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Kostyuchenko and photographer Yuri Kozyrev were repeatedly arrested for “quarantine violations” while trying to cover a massive diesel oil spill from Norilsk Nickel-owned storage tanks in Siberia in June 2020. Dozens of journalists have been arrested in Canada and the United States since 2016 while covering protests by environmentalists and indigenous communities opposed to the construction of gas and oil pipelines and a major hydro-electric dam on ancestral lands. In both countries, journalists were charged with trespassing until courts finally ruled that they could cover the indigenous protests.
Covering environmental activists can be problematic in the United Kingdom and France as well. Police obstructed media coverage of Extinction Rebellion’s attempt to occupy London City Airport in October 2019, while Reporterre journalist Alexandre-Reza Kokabi was held for 10 hours after being arrested while covering an Extinction Rebellion protest at Orly airport in Paris in June 2020. Hugo Clément, a French reporter for the France 2 TV channel, and his three-man crew were held for seven hours after being arrested in Queensland, Australia, in July 2019 while covering a protest by environmentalists opposed to the building of the Carmichael coal mine, which threatens the Great Barrier Reef.
Visible and insidious pressure
Journalists covering environmental stories are sometimes subjected to the most blatant forms of pressure, as in China, where Caixin Weekly reporter Zhou Chen was openly followed, threatened and harassed by officials and police in a district in Fujian province that suffered a serious industrial pollution incident in November 2018. But sometimes the pressure is more insidious. This was the case with a journalist in Egypt specializing in environmental issues who does not want to be named. After writing articles on a sensitive subject linked to coal imports, she realized she was being watched and then discovered she could not fly without being blocked for several hours at the airport.
In Japan, journalists report the existence of widespread self-censorship within the mainstream media on anything to do with the consequences of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. They blame the self-censorship on pressure from the nuclear lobby and the government, which want to prevent reporting that could give a “negative image of Japan” or jeopardize preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which have been postponed until 2021.
Whether direct or subtle, all the harassment and violations of the right to cover environmental stories have consequences. As India’s Sandhya Ravishankar puts it: "While these are important stories to tell, the exploitation of natural resources, the power hierarchies and the violence faced by communities, the ominous consequences of this exploitation will not be told. And this is because journalists would be afraid to tell these stories – and with good reason.”
And the suppression of these stories probably increases the damage to the environment. As Peter Schwartzstein says: “Though tricky to prove, it certainly seems as if this crackdown is contributing to heightened environmental degradation. With vastly insufficient coverage of environmental disasters and woes, huge problems are being left to fester and worsen in this news blackhole.”
Unless we protect environmental journalists or, as Ravishankar says, offer them “at least a semblance of safety,” covering the environment will too often prove an insuperable “challenge,” to use Brandon Lee’s term, and not just in the Philippines.