World Press Freedom Day: the climate crisis toll on the journalists working to expose it

2024-05-03. Today, 3 May, is World Press Freedom Day – and the 2024 theme chosen by UNESCO reflects the increasing threat to both press and planet – underscoring why freedom of expression is critical to a sustainable future.

by Lucinda Jordaan | May 3, 2024

Themed ‘A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the face of the environmental crisis, UNESCO’s 31st  World Press Freedom Day is dedicated to the importance of journalism and freedom of expression in the context of the current global environmental crisis. 

UNESCO outlines the need for this in its World Press Freedom Day concept note.

“Sustainable development is in jeopardy.  The triple planetary crisis … the need to strengthen democracy, to tackle dis/misinformation on digital platforms, among other issues have become major challenges for humanity. The access to reliable information and the importance of strengthening independent environmental and scientific journalism is more critical than ever. 

It is important to be very clear: independent journalists as well as scientists are crucial actors in helping our societies to separate facts from lies and manipulation in order to take informed decisions, including about environmental policies.’

Edited para: This is why, to mark World Press Freedom Day 2024, UNESCO has released a new report, Press and Planet in Danger, outlining the gravity of the situation. UNESCO’s Observatory of Killed Journalists is an ongoing, updated record that reflects the death of least 44 journalists, killed for investigating environmental issues over the past 15 years. The new report details 353 incidents of various forms of physical attacks – and found that these had more than doubled in recent years, “rising from 85 in 2014-2018 to 183 between 2019-2023.”

Deadly environs

Knowing the Truth is Protecting the Truth, the UNESCO Director-General’s 2022 Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity, reflected this “steady increase in the percentage of journalists killed outside of armed conflict zones in recent years, with many of them working on environmental issues.”

On Earth Day, 22 April, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlighted this increasing threat, by calling on governments to step up protection. Nearly 200 journalists have been subjected to “threats and physical violence, including murder,” in the past decade, according to RSF.

Source: Pew Research Center: “Climate Change Remains Top Global Threat Across 19-Country Survey’

A Voice Of America article on the increasing harassment of climate reporters likens the polarisation of the subject to a culture war: as taboo for some as “religion and politics.”  

Scientists and environmental reporters are at the frontline of this divide. And, as the niche beat that was environmental journalism continues to evolve – and develop its own distinct beats – to meet the growing crisis, these attacks may well intensify. 

SEE: Seeding a Shifting Landscape of Environmental Media

Self-censorship: the silent killer

A comprehensive report, Climate and Environmental Journalism Under Fire: Threats to free and independent coverage of climate change and environmental degradation, released by the International Press Institute (IPI) in February, provides an in-depth look at various aspects of this growing crisis. 

The report also exposes the inherent risks to press freedoms:

‘Certain stories – which vary from region to region – are effectively off-limits for journalists due to the dangers associated with covering them. This censorship silences vital public-interest information and endangers the fight to protect the environment and address the climate crisis.’

An immediate picture of the scope of the problem across Europe is easily accessed via Mapping Media Freedom, which documents press and media freedom violations through the interactive Alert Explore tool.

Adopting a strategic approach 

UNESCO offers guidelines to help journalists and scientists, with a comprehensive strategy that includes: 

  • Preventing and protecting against crimes committed against journalists.   
  • Ensuring the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of scientific research, and access to key sources of information, in addition to combating dis-/misinformation through journalism.   
  • Promoting the plurality, diversity, and viability of media, especially regional, local, indigenous, and/or community-based media.   
  • Ensuring that the governance of digital platforms foster the transparency of technology companies, their accountability, due diligence, user empowerment, and content moderation and curation based on international human rights’ standards, as indicated in UNESCO’s Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms. 

Free, accessible resources 

The good news is that environmental reporters are not alone: a growing global network of news outlets, organisations and institutions have developed a wealth of materials – from editing guides and safety manuals to legal and funding resources including tools and toolkits.

For journalists 

  • IJNet’s comprehensive Environmental reporting resources for journalists includes lists of organisations (journalism, governmental and inter-governmental and NGOs) and is regularly updated.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists has separate safety resources for journalists covering the environment or extreme weather, respectively. These include guides for physical, digital and psychological safety. CPJ also offers a range of legal resources for journalists targeted with legal threats.
  • Covering Climate Now, a network by journalists for journalists, supports, convenes, and trains journalists and newsrooms to produce rigorous climate coverage. Their comprehensive reporting guides and explainers include expert sources, surveys, and visual and data tools.
  • The Pulitzer Center’s Work/Environment Reporting Grants, focused on climate change and its effect on work, is now accepting applications. Their Ocean Reporting Network (ORN) is also inviting submissions, and reporters can find a wealth of opportunities to match their distinctive beat in their Reporting Grants and Fellowships portal. 
  • The Rory Peck Trust Risk & Safety Helpdesk 2024 is inviting submissions from journalists at risk on assignment. They will provide guidance on physical, digital, psychological or legal risks on the ground, as well as on risk assessments and planning.

For newsrooms

For editors and copy editors

  • The Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has produced the KSJ Science Editing Handbook specifically for Editors and Copy Editors.

For everyone

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