Map showing the number of journalists killed worldwide in 2018. Data: Committee to Protect Journalists. Graphic: CPJ

By Kaamil Ahmed
4 January 2019

(Mongabay) – A pair of “French spies” had infiltrated India by sea to commit a “treasonous conspiracy,” an Indian minister claimed in late November. In reality, they were two visiting journalists, and their mission was an investigation into allegations of illegal sand mining in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They had merely tried and failed to visit the site of a major mining company through legal means.

Their presence set off alarm bells among some connected to the industry, and the fallout has been significant. It’s included a police investigation, a politically fueled propaganda campaign, and the arrests of two local translators who had been working for them.

This heavy-handed response is familiar to Indian journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, who has reported on sand mining since 2013 and found that her probing into allegations of major business interests damaging the local environment has resulted in stalking and various types of harassment – some of it reportedly directed by the head of one of the mining companies.

“I got rape threats, my bike was vandalized, the miner has openly admitted that there are five detective agencies trailing me wherever I go, CCTV visuals of me having coffee with a source at a cafe have been made public,” Ravishankar said, adding that she also discovered government documents showing “officials have colluded to slander me.”

Ravishankar’s case is just one example of the growing dangers for journalists reporting environmental stories. Even as environmental journalism becomes increasingly important in the face of destructive business and political interests and practices, the inherent safety risks remain. There are also the more routine challenges of accessing crucial information and convincing editors and readers of their importance.

“Journalists I’ve interviewed have been arrested, sued, fired, threatened, harassed, interrogated by police, interrogated by the military, physically assaulted and a number of them have been killed while covering logging, mining, development,” said journalism professor Eric Freedman in an interview. Freedman is the Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. […]

The front page of 'Daily Eleven' in Yangon, Myanmar the day after the murder of one of its reporters, Soe Moe Tun, on 13 December 2016. Photo: Ann Wang / Mongabay

While Brazil has previously been praised for taking steps toward combatting environmental damage by reducing both deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a country where the debate around the environment is typically very loaded.

Fears that the discussion will become even more polarizing have grown since the election this year of the right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro as president. One of his first moves ahead of taking power in the new year was to appoint as his foreign minister an official who has described climate change as a “Marxist plot” and climate science as “dogma.”

Even before Bolsonaro’s election, Brazil was already one of the most dangerous places for environmental activists, according to a 2017 report by free-speech watchdog Article 19. It recorded 57 environmental activists killed in 2017, most of whom worked to defend the Amazon rainforest. […]

Gustavo Faleiros, the editor of InfoAmazonia, which covers issues in the rainforest across the nine countries it spans, said deeper polarization in Brazilian politics would affect journalists trying to report on the environment. They might face accusations of being activists or part of the political opposition, he said.

“I think tough questions will be seen as confrontation and that’s not good,” he said in an interview. “Even worse now there’s this discourse treating those who are asking tough questions as saying those people are leftists who are supporting left ideologies. So it’s a very strange time where just by being critical you become a Communist.”

Faleiros said a lot of the trends environmental journalists in Brazil had to contend with echoed globally, including an “aversion to facts” when reported by the media.

“But here it’s very visible that no matter what kind [of] scientific facts you bring to your story, there will always be an argument to show that this is not enough to be concerned [about] or that you are just showing one side of the story,” Faleiros said. [more]

Journalists reporting on the environment faced increased dangers in 2018

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