Tom Levitt. The Ecologist
26th October, 2009
Recent abductions and threats against activists trying to prevent logging in South-East Asia are part of a worrying trend of violence against those exposing environmental issues
After reporting on illegal logging in Cambodia, Radio Free Asia journalist Lem Piseth received an anonymous phone call.
‘You are insolent, do you want to die?’ said the caller.
‘Why are you insulting me like this?’ asked Piseth.
‘Because of the business of the forest and you should know that there will not be enough land to bury you,’ replied the caller.
Piseth fled across the border into Thailand. He was lucky. Others have not been: Uzbek journalist Solidzhan Abdurakhmanov has been given a 10-year jail sentence for exposing the ecological destruction of the Aral Sea; Mikhail Beketov ended up in a coma, and lost a leg and several fingers in an attack after criticising the construction of a motorway between Moscow and St. Petersburg that threatened the Khimki Forest; Filipino journalist Joey Estriber, who wrote about illegal logging, has been missing since 2006.
Dangers for activists
It reads like a roll call from warzone reporting. In fact, it is an accurate reflection of the current dangers of reporting on environmental issues.
The press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), has recently released a report entitled 'The dangers for journalists who expose environmental issues' in an attempt to bring attention to the worsening violence and intimidation.
It says that the companies, criminals and governments profiting from the destruction of the environment see activists and investigative journalists as, 'enemies to be physically eliminated'.
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'In many countries, journalists who specialise in the environment are on the front line of a new war. The violence to which they are subjected concerns us all. It reflects the new issues that have assumed an enormous political and geo-strategic importance,’ says the report.
One of the most troubling stories has been the case of the Filippino journalist Joey Estriber; he had been critical of ongoing logging in Aurora by companies with allies in the government.
After campaigning to have the permits of nine of these companies withdrawn he was kidnapped by four men. He has not been seen since.
In Burma, there is less need for such retaliation. The military government censorship board has suppressed all references to illegal logging making things easier for the Chinese companies logging on a large scale.
In Cambodia, another country with a history of illegal deforestation, Global Witness representatives who had reported on logging that implicated associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen were told by his brother Hun Neng that if any of them returned to the country, he would 'hit them until their heads are broken.'
However, the opposition faced is not always from the most obvious sources. In many cases even the local population oppose the investigative work of activists and journalists.
The Andean town of La Oroya is the fifth most contaminated place in the world because of a smelting complex operated by Doe Run Peru. According to the RWB report, its 35,000 inhabitants are permanently exposed to heavy metals and gases, yet none complain.
Anyone talking to representatives of the media risks losing their jobs and social benefits. What’s more, Doe Run Peru’s employees even rejected an ecological rescue plan to be certain of keeping their jobs.
It is not just mainstream journalists that are being threatened either. The net is cast as far as relatively unknown online writers.
Tamer Mabrouk, an Egyptian blogger, exposed the dumping of untreated waste water into Lake Manzala during 2008. He was subsequently sued for libel and fined 6,000 Euros in May 2009. He later also lost his job.
Despite the threats and risks they face, activists and journalists are often able to highlight environmental issues that would otherwise remain unknown.
Andrew Wasley is a reporter for Eco-Storm, an investigative news agency based in the UK. In July 2009, two of his colleagues were attacked and later charged with trespass after filming the slaughter of baby seals in a popular nature reserve on the Namibian coast.
They escaped jail and crucially were able to get their footage back to the UK. In doing so they raised awareness of cruelty few had realised was an issue in the African country.
Wasley says it is this type of information that is vital for generating political pressure for action.
'If it wasn’t for the actions of investigations by activists and journalists the facts behind the problems wouldn’t be out there.
'The investigations provide the building blocks. Before you can do anything you need to know the facts about what is going on,' he said.
Reporters Without Borders