Environmental journalism: the dangers and a practical tool helping to mitigate them

Journalism plays a crucial role in gathering, analysing and disseminating essential information regarding environmental matters. It provides people with insights and solutions and uncovers climate and environmental crimes.

By engaging in the thorough investigation, reporting and presentation of these complex topics in a manner that is accessible to the general public, journalists help foster understanding of the causes and consequences of and solutions to environmental challenges. Moreover, environmental journalism draws attention to pressing environmental issues that would otherwise go overlooked. By uncovering environmental violations, it exposes illegal activities, corruption and other crimes and transgressions that might otherwise remain hidden.

Journalism’s second-most dangerous field

Unfortunately, the importance of environmental journalists’ work is mirrored by the risks they face. As a direct result of the massive interests at play, journalists are frequently harassed, assaulted or even killed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a total of at least 7,293 journalists were killed, imprisoned or missing worldwide between 1992 and 2022. As for environmental journalists, the UN Environment Programme says that dozens were killed in the past two decades, making it the most dangerous field of journalism after war reporting. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), between 2015 and 2020 at least ten journalists covering environmental issues were murdered in India, Cambodia, Philippines, and Indonesia

They include Jagendra Singh, a social media journalist from India, who used to run a Facebook page called Shahjahanpur Samachar. Singh was investigating land grabs and alleged illegal sand extraction from the Garra River. He was attacked by a gang who broke into his residence, doused him with petrol and set him on fire.

According to RSF, in 2015, at least six journalists from Peru, who were investigating illegal forestry, mining, and pollution, were harassed and assaulted. Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a freelance environmental journalist in Uzbekistan, was imprisoned for almost a decade. And in a much-publicised case in 2022, environmental journalist Dom Phillips and environmental expert Bruno Pereira were murdered while working to expose illegal fishing and mining in the western Amazon region of Brazil.

In addition to threats rooted in vested political and financial interests, environmental journalists are also exposed to physical hazards while in the field, from chemical pollutants to extreme weather conditions to environmental conflict. Moreover, in this digital era, it is crucial to acknowledge that journalists are vulnerable to cyberattacks, surveillance and online threats when covering sensitive matters, not least environmental ones. And last but not least, witnessing and recording environmental degradation, loss of life and human suffering can have both immediate and long-term adverse psychological impacts.

A tool to mitigate the dangers

All of this points to one stark fact: covering environmental issues is dangerous business. That is why IMS and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesia, have developed a comprehensive risk assessment tool for journalists and media workers who are planning to report on environmental issues.

The tool builds on actual experiences of environmental journalists around the world. Each module provides reading around and references to a condition or situation. It allows journalists to produce a list of needs tailored to the assignment they are planning; helps them understand and analyse the potential risks associated with environmental journalism and how to mitigate them; and gives recommendations around risk assessment, itinerary planning, communication, data security and protection, and potential evacuation. The tool provides an independent learning process that can be followed by any journalist, editor or other media worker at any time. For a quick overview, watch this introductory video:

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Chairman of AJI Indonesia, Sasmito Madrim, said the independent learning process was deliberately applied so that every journalist could understand the concept of safety thoroughly: “The hope is that journalists can produce investigative reporting that has an impact on the public and remain safe until they can return to their work professionally.”

Says IMS Executive Director Jesper Højberg:
“Across the world, not least in Southeast Asia, brave and innovative journalists are working to expose climate and environmental crime. The importance of their work cannot be overestimated. I hope and believe that the new and experience-based tool we are making publicly available will help mitigate the risks they are facing as they employ their ingenuity and personal courage to use to uncover powerholders’ callous abuses.”