There is a new kind of war forming throughout the developed world, and those on the frontline are often journalists. A recent report by the Paris based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has revealed a global trend of conflict between polluters and those reporters who seek to expose them. Throughout the world journalists have been increasingly suffering intimidation, violence, imprisonment and even death for their work.
The journalist Mikhail Beketov was beaten nearly to death in 2008 for his coverage of a plan to build a new highway through Russian forest. In the Philippines, the radio broadcaster Joe Estriber was kidnapped in 2006 for his criticism of illegal logging in the Aurora province; he has not been seen since. The report by RSF claims that whilst these attacks are often the work of criminal gangs, they also involve governments and international companies.
The importance which journalistic analysis has on setting government policy and agenda means that their involvement in environmental issues is extremely important. The collection and broadcasting of information to influence policy makers can be dangerous to those who hold vested interests in the exploitation of natural resources. Whether this be a local criminal gang benefiting from illegal trade, or a company colluding with government for business profit, journalists pose a potential threat. In many cases, the report argues, the scale of the threat is such that it may require physical elimination.
The power that these reporters wield is arguably due to the “enormous political and geostrategic importance,” which ecological issues have achieved. With issues such as global warming, deforestation and species extinction reaching world-wide audiences there is a huge potential for environmental activism. Throughout the West, the preservation of the environment is perceived as an uncontroversial issue. However, in the developing world in which the ecological exploitation takes place, the documenting and reporting of these issues is highly divisive.
RSF argues that for the protection of both independent environmental reporting, and the reporters themselves, governments need to do more to defend this branch of journalism as a legitimate and necessary expression. However, as many of the local or international companies would be unable to conduct their activities without the consent or collusion of governments, this aim seems distant. Restrictions and controls placed on journalists by the state are often some of the most powerful indirect tools used by polluters to suppress criticism.
On the home front, environmental reporting is suffering pressure from a more subtle, yet just as significant, form of censorship. Across the United States many newspapers and broadcasters have been forced to downsize or close their environmental departments as subscriptions and viewing figures apply pressure. The readership of newspapers has steadily declined over the last two decades, and numerous surveys have found that the critical audience, that aged 22 to 44, “would rather channel-surf than read a newspaper.” The result of this is that in attempting to attract viewers and readers quickly, many broadcasters simply cannot afford to establish extensive in-depth environmental reports.
Although many blame this on the changes and trends in popular audience demands, it would be naïve to underestimate the importance of a two-way transfer. The audience does not merely set the agenda of the media, but the media simultaneously interacts with the public to influence their demands. When the majority of newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets are owned by the same large corporate institutions, it is not surprising that their content matches the interests of industry. That the audience is attracted to shorter and more superficial news is more a function of the monopoly control which a few institutions have over the media diversity, than one of the industry’s loyal response to audience demands.