What happens to environment journalists is chilling: they get killed for their work
Many people tend to think of environmental journalism as the “soft” beat, reporting on the “natural world” of dolphins, polar bears, birds, pine cones, and news about climate breakdown.
But away from the privileged surroundings of Europe and North America, in places where the rule of law fades away and the Earth’s resources are among the few sources of wealth and power, things get a lot more raw.
Decisions are made by companies to do business in settings that tolerate practices which would be inconceivable at home
Say, for instance, that you thought the US Environmental Protection Agency was closely tied to the interests of polluters and you had the evidence to back that up, revealing it would not get you killed. But similar assertions could do in an increasingly alarming number of places around the world.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that an unprecedented 13 journalists pursuing environmental stories have been killed in the process of doing their work over the past 10 years.
Getting close to unrestrained power can also get you beaten up, harassed, and threatened. That’s what journalists in Russia discovered when they described the impact of a road built through a forest connecting Moscow to St Petersburg. Journalists in Brazil working to expose the rapid expansion of soybean farms into the Amazon had a similar experience; as did journalists in Tanzania, as the Guardian’s new Green Blood series details, when they tried to expose the devastation wrought by mines.
Others engaged directly in environmental activism – often journalists’ sources – also pay a high price.Global Witness reports that 207 environmental activists were killed in 2017, most of whom were opposed to agribusiness and mining projects. Their fate sends a chilling message to journalists inclined to dig deeper. You can’t disentangle the two.
To understand what environmental journalists do and what lands them in trouble, there’s a handy term drawn from the natural sciences – the “trophic cascade”.
One classic example: rising temperatures lead to new bugs following the heat, which leads to new crop diseases, which in turn leads to declining crop yields, which lead to higher food prices – all of which can lead to heightened social tensions and conflict.
Environmental journalists similarly follow the cascade, except in reverse. They become aware of evidence that environmental degradations are taking place – the contamination of a river by a factory or the destruction of ecosystems by a mine.
Then they work their way backwards to find out: how did it happen? Who did it? And pretty soon you have reverse engineered your way straight into the highest ranks of financial and political power, elites with a stake in ensuring that the questions are not answered. Or, if they are, that the answers are not published.
Environmental journalism is about power – who has it and who does not. But instead of reporting from, say, a legislative chamber or boardroom, journalists report from a place where a source of wealth is located – a mine shaft, factory gate, dam site.
Among the biggest environmental violatorsare western companies, often listed on stock exchanges and headquartered far from where their destructive strategies play out, either directly or indirectly, as buyers of the goods produced. Long supply chains to minerals, timber and other products of the extractive industries often lead right back to a degradation of commonly held resources like clean drinking water, free-flowing rivers or intact forests as they are channelled into the production of privately held commodities.
Decisions are made to do business in settings that tolerate practices – limits on the press, little to no transparency, abusive enforcement of private interests by the state – that would be inconceivable at home. Some companies have agreed under pressure to independent monitoring of labour conditions in outsourced factories. But there is no such monitoring to act as a check on the destruction that often accompanies mining, farming, logging, fishing and other extractive industries. That check is most often provided by journalists.
Thus respect for human rights cannot be separated from respect for press freedom. They are linked. Threats against journalists and activists in any sector should always be a red flag for business. The same holds for the many financial institutions that help to finance companies’ expansion into developing countries. Last year, the World Bank established a set of guidelines designed to limit the environmental disruptions and community displacements from the projects it finances. However, according to the Coalition for Human Rights in Development many of the international and national development banks it works with have yet to integrate any such principles, leaving a loophole big enough to drive a bulldozer through a tropical forest – as it claims has occurred with such financing in Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala and elsewhere.
As if we needed another illustration. When a million people hit the streets of Hong Kongto protest against against the efforts of the Chinese government to expand its judicial reach into the territory, a move which could threaten the ability of journalists to continue their work without government interference, barelya word came from the global financial institutions with its headquarters there. It was the citizens, not the international companies who ultimately led the authorities to postpone the measure.
Of course, the best possible response would be for companies to stop engaging in practices that trigger the investigative cascade. They should refuse altogether to work in countries that limit the ability of journalists to do their job – either through restrictive laws, or not bothering to investigate when they or their sources are injured or killed on the job.
• Mark Schapiro is an investigative journalist whose most recent book is Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply, and a lecturer at the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism