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Environment

Environmental journalists face political, physical threats worldwide

Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Jean-Francois Julliard says environmental journalists face intimidation and increasing threats around the globe.

Jean-Francois Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders has called for protection for environmental journalists

At the Global Media Forum concluding this week in Bonn, attendees focused on environmental journalists and global media coverage. After recent major United Nations conferences in Bonn and last December in Copenhagen, environmental issues continue to be at the forefront of international political discussion. Deutsche Welle spoke with Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Jean-Francois Julliard about the increased dangers that these reporters in Europe, Asia, and around the globe, face on a daily basis.

DW: What challenges do environmental journalists, or bloggers for that matter, face?

Actually they face quite similar problems as political journalists, for instance. They can be physically attacked, they can [receive death threats], they can be imprisoned, because the environment is becoming a big issue. It's a burning issue now especially because of this big Copenhagen summit last year, so it's getting more and more dangerous and more and more difficult to report on environmental issues. So it means that journalists who want to investigate the causes of global warming for instance in some countries can be just put in prison in some countries, can [receive death threats], so yes, it's getting more and more difficult to report on this very important issue … Mikhail Beketov is a Russian journalist, and he reported on the building of a road between Moscow and another city near Moscow, and he said that there was collusion and corruption between local authorities and the private company in charge of this road. Because of this, and because of the story they published, he was attacked. He was severely beaten, he lost his leg … It's one of these cases that shows that it is really too dangerous to report on environmental issues.

So environmental journalists are now subject to similar scrutiny as human rights journalists or political journalists might have been 20 years ago?

Yes exactly, it is the same threat. Environmental journalists are [facing] the same threats now as human rights journalists, or political journalists, or economic journalists were 10 to 20 years ago. I wouldn't say it's as dangerous as war reporting for instance but it is becoming a burning issue and a very delicate and highly sensitive issue to report on.

Between censoring that exists in the traditional media – newspapers, television – and the lack of protection that bloggers face, is it better to be a traditional journalist when you're dealing with these matters, or a new media journalist, like a blogger?

It's always better, easier, to be a traditional journalist within traditional media because you have more support. When you work for big TV networks for instance you have people who can help you, you have people who can provide you a lawyer if you face a complaint for instance. When you are a blogger, you are alone. Nobody will find you a lawyer, you have to pay for your lawyer when you find him. When you are a blogger and you are put in prison usually nobody except your family, your relatives, your friends, will take care of you. So of course it's always better to have a big media to support you.

It's not just pressure that journalists face from governments, is it? They also can be threatened by industry.

Yes, they can be [intimidated] for instance by private companies, or investigated, and the fact is that usually these journalists are getting into big trouble when they report about the collusion between local authorities and private companies. This is the most difficult part of this work. When a blogger or journalist says that this private company is doing business and is violating the environment with the help, or with the complicity of local authorities, the journalist is in big trouble. And at this time we know that we need to find ways to protect these journalists.

How can journalists be protected?

Actually the first [way] is to give them publicity, because usually these journalists are quite isolated. They work alone, they work in very tough countries, and some of them are not journalists in the traditional way, they are bloggers. So it means they work alone, they don't have the power of big media behind them, so they need to be put forward, they need to be protected from outside by international organizations. So our role as an international organization is to raise this issue and to focus on these people who are trying to defend our planet. We have to take care of them, we have to protect them, we have to give them publicity, we have to alert international organizations like the European Union for instance or the United Nations, to ask them to protect these journalists as well.

If you could pinpoint these kinds of problems geographically, is this a developing world issue or is it everywhere?

Actually it's everywhere – we started two years ago compiling these specific cases of press freedom violations regarding environmental journalists, and now we have recorded cases from about thirty countries from Brazil to China, and Cuba to Vietnam to African countries like Congo, Cameroon, as well [as] Cambodia, Indonesia, Middle East countries like Syria and Egypt – so it's all over the world. Of course the threats are not the same, when you're a journalist in Brazil, you are not usually killed, but in Uzbekistan or in Russia or in Vietnam you can be put in prison. In African countries you can be physically beaten when you report on these issues. But even in European Union countries, it's not easy to report on these issues. Of course you are not going to be put in prison, if you report on environmental issues in Germany or France. But you will have great difficulties accessing the information, because this information is highly sensitive, and if you -- even in Germany -- want to have access to a private company, which is accused of polluting rivers for instance, it will be very difficult to have access to this information because people will usually not recognize that they're polluting the rivers, and they will not be very happy to give you any information.

Interview: Sophie Tarr
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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