The Dangers Facing Environmental Journalists

By Sigrid Vasconez Davidsson, Program Manager for Regional Community Response to Conservation Crimes at Internews in The Americas (LAC Programs)

When we think about the dangers facing journalists, we usually think about war reporting or investigations into organized crime, but the reality is that journalists covering environmental issues are threatened for simply doing their jobs all over the world.  Those covering the most pertinent stories about our planet are regularly subject to harassment, surveillance, intimidation, and state-imposed censorship. This limits the coverage of vital environmental issues and in turn, cripples our ability to protect the Earth’s most fragile ecosystems.

In the past two years, Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia and the Pacific have continued to record the largest number of journalist killings (38% and 32% respectively), according to UNESCO. Around the world, 320 journalists have been put behind bars for their work – the second highest number ever recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists’ census – indicating an alarming global crackdown on press freedom.

With the rise of environmental degradation, climate change and rapid biodiversity loss, the role of environmental journalism is more critical than ever. However, the increasing threats environmental journalists – particularly indigenous, local, and independent journalists – face desperately needs to be addressed. The safety of environmental journalists who report on issues like illegal logging, fishing, mining, wildlife trafficking, and corruption within infrastructure development, is acutely at risk.

This reality is reflected in Covering the Planet, the first truly global research study ever conducted on environmental journalism. The study – a collaboration between Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and Deakin University – found that 39% of journalists reported being sometimes or frequently threatened because of their work and the same percentage of journalists self-censored when covering climate and environment-related issues.

Those surveyed also mentioned that to increase their capacity to report, they need more assistance. The top five areas of assistance identified included more funding for in-depth journalism (79%); in-person training and workshops (75%); fellowships to attend conferences (72%); more access to relevant data (67%) and better access to subject experts (60%).  The Earth Journalism Network has decades of experience in supporting journalists across the globe to develop security protocols and training to ensure they can conduct safe reporting.  As the risk to journalists continues to increase, we are doubling our efforts to provide environmental journalists with tools to address the digital and physical threats they encounter, as well as providing resources to improve their well-being.

In the Amazon regions of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, Internews’ Together for Conservation project, led by Wildlife Conservation Society with the support of USAID, has carried out several capacity building activities to ensure that journalists reporting on environmental crimes can do it safely.  To address digital security, we launched an online course “Seguridad digital para construir en comunidad” in Spanish and Portuguese for journalists, indigenous, and local communicators in the four amazon countries. Since its launching in 2023, the course has reached more than 700 journalists and communicators. Feedback from course participants has been very positive, pointing out that it has provided them with useful and practical tools on how to ensure their digital safety.

Another practice carried out by Internews’ Together for Conservation is to request risk assessments to journalists applying to the project’s story grant calls.  These risk assessments are part of the grantee selection process and if the story is selected, the journalist is paired with a mentor that helps in developing an action plan to reduce the risks identified. Given the highly volatile scenario in the Amazon, addressing threats often require grantees changing their story focus, angles and sites and detailing a physical and digital security protocol for their reporting.  To complement the one-to-one mentorship, the project’s team carries out training webinars on how to develop security protocols with the participation of journalists that have reported environmental crimes in the Amazon. By creating these peer learning spaces, journalists can discuss and exchange ways to prevent and/or reduce foreseeable threats. These spaces also contribute to collaboration amongst environmental journalists working in the Amazon.  Based on these efforts, the 80 grantees supported by Together for Conservation have not had any major problems in producing their work.

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2024, which recognized that the need for independent environmental journalism has never been more urgent, the Earth Journalism Network and Pulitzer Center hosted a panel titled “Uncovering Environmental Crimes in Tropical Ecosystems: Investigative Journalism and Press Freedom in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America”. The panel highlighted the lessons from our ongoing work with environmental reporters and how these need to be replicated and multiply to overcome threats to press freedom.  Lessons from our work show that to support environmental and investigative reporting in tropical ecosystems we must rapidly adapt risk assessments, security protocols, trainings, and mentorship to respond to the increasingly violent and threating situations journalists fine themselves in.  To respond adequately, we need to understand the context and anticipate how to handle these threats more effectively. It also requires sustained funding and technical resources to follow up and assist journalists in the field.  

Although circumstances – and the specific threats that reporters receive – differ in every country, 80% of surveyed journalists in Covering the Planet cited the need for more funding as a key element to increase their capacity to report on environment and climate change. Followed by funding, 75% of respondents mentioned the need for in- person training and workshops. These results evidence a growing consensus that funding, and capacity building are key elements for robust and in-depth environmental journalism. However, as noted, facing increasingly violent scenarios, funding, and training to ensure secure reporting should be a priority. In regions, such as the Amazon basin, where environmental crimes are transboundary, efforts to establish collaborative networks amongst journalists that can alert, monitor and report threats should be fostered to safeguard and bring to light the importance of their work. At Internews and EJN we are working towards this aim, by placing resources to develop risk assessments and security protocols and facilitating collaboration and peer learning opportunities for environmental journalists.

Climate change and environmental harms are the defining issues of our times, requiring profound, unprecedented, and urgent global action (United Nations, 2023). In the face of these issues, a disheartening finding in Covering the Planet is that audiences in many countries believe that the science on climate change is still being debated and that its anthropogenic causes are not clearly established. This is problematic when widespread public understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change is urgently needed to support global climate action. Although supporting journalists doesn’t seem like the most direct way to address these planetary challenges, environmental reporting does play a critical role in this urgent global call. Increasing both the quantity and quality of environmental reporting can influence people to better understand what is at stake.  

At Internews, we are committed to supporting journalists to freely and safely report on the climate crisis and environmental crimes and how they both impact the livelihoods of vulnerable populations. As threats and violence against environmental journalists continue to increase, we need to develop effective plans to protect environmental journalists, so that they can continue to counter mis/disinformation, act as watchdogs, and safeguard the public interest. And none of this will be possible without access to sufficient funding, technical assistance, and training, to continue their vital work.