Even in the United States and Australia, journalists and communicators have been targeted with hate mail as a result of their reporting on climate change (at least one member of the Society of Environmental Journalists has reported such threats to the FBI), although it seems that most of the verbal violence is directed towards climate scientists. In fact, it is the environmental and community activists in developing countries who are probably in the greatest danger, as they are murdered with alarming frequency.
Threats Are Too Often Effective
While we all admire journalists who stand up to threats made against them, many do not, and it is hard to blame them. As a journalist covering environmental issues in the 1990s in Thailand, I was occasionally threatened, typically not with violence but rather, in my case, with being kicked out of the country. With the strong support of my editors, I generally ignored the threats and did my best to name names, but in one case I did back down. After uncovering a logging scandal that involved smuggling timber from Burma into Thailand and that eventually set off a skirmish between the Burmese military and some ethnic rebels, I made a trip to the border with some Thai journalists. Along the way, we passed the car of the Thai logging tycoon involved in the scheme, surrounded by his cronies and logging equipment. It was a rare chance to actually question him about his involvement and thereby get his name in the newspaper.
My Thai colleagues, however, forcefully warned me against carrying out the interview, pointing out that I’d probably never be able to walk the streets safely again, or at least not without the constant worry of being gunned down from behind. I heeded their caution, and they were right. Sometimes, it really is better to let discretion be the better part of valor. In this case, the tycoon allegedly ended up losing a lot of his investment due to my coverage of the scandal, and another logging scandal several years later eventually brought his name to light.
The truth is, threats and violence against journalists are often effective. They not only lead to censorship, but to an insidious self-censorship among journalists. Particularly in the more authoritarian countries, it is hard to know what coverage will cross some invisible line and get a reporter into serious trouble. It can be easier to simply avoid taking risks by not covering controversial issues—all the more reason to laud and protect those who dare to report the full truth.
How to Help
What can the rest of us do to encourage press freedom and prevent attacks on journalists? Support from local audiences and the international community can go a long way.
“We received messages of solidarity from colleagues around the region. We received no assistance from the international community,” says Cherelle Jackson, now the editor of Pacific Environment Weekly in Samoa. “They could have assisted greatly with equipment, laptops, printers and other basic tools for news gathering, as we had lost everything in the fire: printer, office equipment, archives, everything. Newsline received tremendous assistance from the local community, local media, families and close friends, that’s what saw us through the six months after the fire.”
In retrospect, Jackson adds, she probably should have written the piece as one story, instead of three, and perhaps sought to publish it internationally rather than locally.
Assistance can come in other forms, too. Awards for journalists can help raise their profiles, thus serving as a deterrent against attacks. Journalism safety courses can help train journalists in protective methods, and that training needs to extend farther into the digital realm. Most importantly, government and military authorities have a responsibility to protect journalists and other citizens who wish to peacefully make their voices heard on the environment.
That way, we can look forward to a year when World Press Freedom Day will be a cause solely for celebration, not mourning.