The murder of Dom Phillips in Brazil reveals the danger of environmental journalism


Journalism is generally not considered a dangerous profession. Of course, there are fictionalized depictions of war correspondents and brave reporters, photographers and videographers who venture deep into areas of political unrest and civil unrest, ultra-corrupt countries and sites of natural disasters. But the public as a whole doesn’t care about other journalists.

And yet the disappearance and alleged murder of intrepid British journalist Dom Phillips this month in Brazil’s Javari Valley shines a dark spotlight on the lesser-known but equally frightening dangers of environmental reporting.

Environmental reporting is one of journalism’s most perilous paces.

Environmental reporting is one of journalism’s most perilous paces.

In the case of Phillips, police say tragedy struck the veteran journalist, who has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and The Washington Post, in a region of rainforest plagued by illegal fishing, in the poaching and other environmental crimes. Currently, reports suggest that Phillips may have been killed in an illegal fishing dispute at an indigenous reservation on the border of Colombia and Peru. Police have so far sought to downplay any links to organized crime, although indigenous activists in the area remain skeptical.

As part of my research on how journalists can more effectively cover international environmental issues, I interviewed environmental reporters whose work has made them the target of physical, legal, economic and psychological attacks – including journalists imprisoned in Liberia, prosecuted in India, harassed in exile in Nigeria and physically attacked in Egypt.

The attacks have led some to change jobs. For others, the attacks reinforced their sense of mission and reinforced their commitment to journalism’s watchdog role. Either way, many suffer from long-term psychological ramifications, such as depression and substance abuse.

Globally, most of the reported incidents — like Phillips’ murder — take place in less-developed countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. This means journalists reporting on environmental issues are at particular risk in remote areas, out of sight of mainstream news media.

“In these places, these countries, a lot of the money and wealth is tied to natural resources, so covering the extraction, exploitation, degradation, even trading of natural resources, covers very large sums of money and significant and significant business and financial interests,” executive director Meaghan Parker of the Society of Environmental Journalists told me recently.

“Many have poor or unclear governance on how to manage natural resources and how to enforce or not enforce laws covering natural resources,” Parker said.

And Phillips’ murder is just the latest in a series of anti-journalism actions in Brazil in particular.

Phillips’ murder is just the latest in a series of anti-journalism actions in Brazil in particular.

Only two months earlier, the Brazilian subsidiary of British mining company Brazil Iron had called police to accuse journalists Daniel Camargos and Fernando Martinho of trespassing during their visit to the company to seek comment on the effects of mining activities. on local communities. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, a press rights group, the two men were held at a police station for about an hour and then released without charge.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Dutch journalist Bram Ebus was detained and questioned by the National Guard and military intelligence in Venezuela while investigating illegal mining in indigenous communities. In Guatemala, police raided a media outlet and the homes of journalists and harassed reporters covering protests against mining operations at a nickel processing plant, according to news reports.

In Africa, Der Spiegel correspondent Bartholomaeus Grill and a Swedish freelance photographer were arrested by villagers and police and threatened by a leading rhino poaching leader in Mozambique.

Journalists reporting on environmental controversies in developed countries are also targets, as in Finland, where journalists have cited environmental issues – along with immigration, racism, religion and gender equality – as “trigger topics that generate threats and harassment”.

Journalists in the United States and Canada are not immune either.

Several American journalists have been arrested while covering protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, as have Canadian journalists covering protests against fracking near First Nations lands in New Brunswick and a controversial hydroelectric project in Labrador.

In my opinion, there are two main reasons why environmental journalists are targeted. Both reflect greed – greed for money and greed for power – at the expense of the environment and the public good.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists’ latest annual Global Impunity Index observed, “No one has been held accountable for 81% of journalists’ murders over the past 10 years.”

First, environmental controversies often involve well-connected business and political interests, corruption, and criminal behavior such as illegal mining, logging, and poaching. These stories also fit into the portfolios of business, crime and corruption journalists.

Many of these issues involve conflicts over environmental injustice, social and economic inequalities, and Indigenous rights to natural resources and land – in other words, the powerful exploit the powerless.

Second, those who attack environmental journalists, particularly physically through kidnapping, assault and murder, are largely acting with a lack of accountability and little reason to fear punishment.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists’ latest annual Global Impunity Index observed, “No one has been held accountable for 81% of journalists’ murders over the past 10 years.”

History and current events show that those responsible are unlikely to be arrested, let alone convicted and imprisoned for their crimes against journalists. In fact, law enforcement and government officials are often in cahoots with the civilians, criminal gangs, and corporations responsible for some of these atrocities.

As Parker said, “If you threaten money and power in a place with bad governance, you’re going to be at great risk.”


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