Journalists face many threats for uncovering environmental abuses. Some more solidarity from their safer colleagues around the world would put the media spotlight on a growing problem that nations are obliged to tackle under the Rio Declaration they signed in 1992.
[Update: Since I wrote this post in 2010, more environment journalists have been murdered, threatened or harrassed. I will update the text with their stories at the end of the post.]
Dig deep enough into any story that concerns the environment and you will soon find those terrible twins — money and power — which can bless or curse anyone they touch.
The risks to a journalist are particularly high when that story is about illegal deforestation in a country such as Indonesia, where logs are so lucrative and corruption so rife.
It is surprising then that media outlets around the world have remained near-silent following reports by IFEX (among others) of the deaths of two prominent Indonesian environment journalists in the space of just a few days.
On 30 July 2010, investigative journalist Ardiansyah Matra’is was found dead — naked and with one arm tethered to a tree — in the Gudang Arand river in Indonesia’s West Papua province.
Reporters Without Borders suggest that Matrai’is had been driven to suicide, following a period of intense mental turmoil.
Last year, he had exposed the involvement of military officers in illegal logging in West Papua. Soon after his reports were published, Matrai’is was kidnapped by soldiers who threatened to harm him and his family. IFEX reports that in the days before his death, he received yet more threats — this time via text message.
A few days earlier on 26 July, another Indonesian journalist called Muhammad Syaifullah was found dead at his home with a frothy residue around his month. Syaifullah was head of Kompas newspaper’s Borneo bureau and he too had reported extensively on illegal logging.
While an autopsy blamed a brain haemorrhage, local journalists suspected that that Syaifullah was poisoned and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) said it was planning to investigate.
A month earlier, Reporters Without Borders reported that yet another Indonesian journalist – this time in Aceh Province – had been threatened and beaten by an army officer over a report about illegal logging.
This strange cluster of cases — scattered as it is across the immense East-West spread of Indonesia’s many islands — is not unique. Nor is illegal logging the only subject that carries serious risks for environment journalists.
Back in September 2009, Reporters Without Borders released a report (PDF) which, in just seven pages, told how reporters in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe faced threats for reporting on the environment.
The first paragraph is telling.
Guinean journalist Lai Baldé has been threatened. Egyptian blogger Tamer Mabrouk has been sued. Russian journalist Grigory Pasko has just spent four years in prison. His Uzbek colleague, Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, has just been given a 10-year jail sentence. Mikhail Beketov, another Russian journalist, has lost a leg and several fingers as a result of an assault. Bulgarian reporter Maria Nikolaeva was threatened with having acid thrown in her face. Filipino journalist Joey Estriber has been missing since 2006… What do these journalists and many others have in common? They are or were covering environmental issues in countries where it is dangerous to do so. (read the full report here).
Now, of course, many of these countries are dangerous places to be for journalists on many different beats.
But when almost all nations on Earth signed the Rio Declaration in 1992 they pledged, among other things, to ensure that the public would have access to adequate information about the environment and the ability to participate in decision-making about how it is managed.
Press freedom is key to delivering that information but around the world journalists continue to be threatened, jailed, beaten and killed, for reporting on these issues.
Too often, powerful figures in governments or the military, together with their cronies in environmentally destructive sectors, see local journalists as a nuisance that can be intimidated into silence.
International journalists can step in to amplify the stories of colleagues in less secure settings. They have an important role to play in exposing failures to protect press freedom and uphold the principles of the Rio Declaration – not least because the fate of a far off forest can have impacts around the world.
Unless journalists in all parts of the world are free to report on the environment, any future actions that governments and companies pledge or take — on climate change, or biodiversity, on mining or pollution — will be dangerously opaque.
Nor will these actions be subject to the level of public scrutiny that is needed to ensure that the planet’s resources — and the money and power that they bring — are not captured by the elites who too often have proven to be such poor custodians of the natural capital we all ultimately depend on.
[Update: Mongabay.com reported on 17 September 2010 that police in Madagascar had arrested a foreign journalist who had filmed illegal logging there. They deleted the journalist's footage. By law they should have investigated the crime the journalist had evidence of.]
[Update: Radio journalist Gerardo Ortega, who reported on the environmental impacts of mining and other issues in Palawan, the Philippines was murdered on 24 January 2011. AFP reported that hitmen were paid US$$3,370 to kill the journalist.]
[Update: Cambodian journalist Hang Serei Oudom, who reported on the illegal logging, was murdered in September 2012 (see AFP story). His editor said: "He wrote stories about forest crimes involving business people and powerful officials in the province. Most of his stories were about illegal logging of luxury wood." See also my later post Journalists are dying – literally — to tell stories of environmental plunder]
[Update: On 27 September 2012, the Phnom Penh Post reportedthat another Cambodian journalist who reported on illegal logging had received a death threat and a brutal beating. Ek Sokunthy was beaten on the head and body with a pistol and wooden stick by three men, including a former police officer. They also pushed the journalist's wife to the floor during the attack. The Phonm Penh Post reports that Ek Sokunthy receoved a phone call following the murder of journalist Hang Serei Oudom. The caller said: "Did you hear about the death? Do you want to follow? Do you want to continue your career here?”]