Local, independent and pluralistic journalism in the Brazilian Amazon is crucial to tackle the climate emergency, says RSF

When British journalist Dom Phillips was murdered in June 2022, he was working on a book-length investigation that had the tentative title "How to save the Amazon." Phillips knew, as do journalists who cover the region, that journalism done on the ground is crucial to keeping the forest standing as well as tackling the climate emergency. A report recently released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF, by its French acronym) reinforces this viewpoint, as well as mapping out challenges and ways to strengthen journalism in the Brazilian Amazon.

The report "Scorched lands of journalism in the Amazon" was released by the organization on Sept. 21 and brings the results of a year of monitoring the region, between June 30, 2022 and June 30, 2023. The research project began just 12 days after the murders of Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Pereira — "an unfortunate coincidence," Artur Romeu, director of RSF's Latin America office, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

"We designed the research project over the first half of 2022 to talk about how local journalists and communicators who address socio-environmental issues in the Amazon act under dramatic circumstances," he said. The murders of Phillips and Pereira "in a way confirmed, right from the start [of the research project], the relevance of this topic," he said.

The report highlights the climate and journalism emergencies in the Amazon, and states that “the fight for local, free, plural and independent journalism is therefore closely linked to the climate crisis.”

According to Romeu, the research started from the premise that "to face major contemporary challenges and crises, we need reliable information about what is happening".

"The Amazon is one of the front lines of the climate emergency. So it's important to understand the conditions in which the journalists who are on this front line are working. Are there conditions for practicing free, plural, independent, local journalism on one of the main frontlines of one of humanity's greatest challenges? This is the question that led to the research," he said.

The monitoring recorded 66 attacks on the press in the Brazilian Amazon during that period, including physical aggression, harassment and threats against journalists. While in the rest of the country the main perpetrators of attacks on journalists are State agents, in the Amazon the main aggressors are private actors: "members of criminal organizations, farmers, private security agents, representatives of mining companies or even tourism companies," writes the report. They were responsible for 57% of the attacks on the press recorded by RSF in the region between June 2022 and June 2023.

A third of the attacks took place in the context of the 2022 presidential elections, following the trend of violence against the press recorded across Brazil last year. And at least 16 attacks, or a quarter of the total recorded, were directly linked to feature stories on agribusiness, mining, Indigenous peoples and human rights violations in the Amazon.

Structural challenges

The RSF report classifies the region as "a hostile environment for journalism" for various reasons. One of them is the vastness of the Amazon: it covers 61% of Brazil's territory and encompasses nine states. Getting around this vast area is expensive and complex. There are many places that can only be reached after many hours of travel by plane, car and boat, always depending on the weather, which affects road conditions and navigation on rivers.

If it is not possible to report from the ground, remote investigation is also not always easy, due to the limitations and instability of the telephone network and internet connection, the document explains. "It is precisely in areas that are difficult to access, far from the eyes of the state and the press, that conflicts tend to be more violent," says the report.

The obstacles to reporting on the ground also include the difficulties in financing independent journalism in the Amazon. This is another structural challenge in the region, Romeu said.

There is frequent pressure from advertisers to steer the coverage of the media in which they advertise, both from public funders, such as local governments, and private funders, such as companies operating in the region. According to sources interviewed by RSF, large companies often advertise in local media "precisely to take advantage of the economic weakness of the media in the Amazon" and try to influence coverage to suit their interests. Journalism "is treated as a bargaining chip," the document states.

According to RSF, this context makes it even more important for international organizations and philanthropic foundations to invest in the sustainability of local journalism and in “guaranteeing editorial independence from the political and economic interests of local powers.”

RSF argues that strengthening independent journalism in the region "must be at the forefront of national and international discussions on strategies for preserving the Amazon," the report states. Along with funding initiatives to keep the forest standing and protect environmental and human rights defenders, international foundations and governments should also invest in local independent media and in protecting journalists working in the Amazon, the organization argues.

One of the suggestions is for journalistic initiatives to be eligible for the Amazon Fund, a Brazilian state fund aimed at financing projects to combat deforestation and for the conservation and sustainable use of forests in the Brazilian Amazon. The governments of Norway and Germany are the main funders of the Amazon Fund, which once again highlights the role of international cooperation in strengthening the Amazon media ecosystem, given the "global relevance of news about what is happening in this territory", Romeu said.

"The strengthening of local communication initiatives goes off the radar, so to speak, of these major investments in the [Amazonian] territory. In the report, we say: what about the Amazon Fund, is there no way of making journalistic initiatives eligible? How can we inject resources that guarantee a lower financial dependency ratio between those who have money in the Amazon and those who want to produce news? Because those who want to produce news with a socio-environmental focus, when they go looking for those who have money in the region, will find people with economic interests usually linked to extractivist practices, [and] exploitation," he said.

Banner image: Fire in the Amazon forest in the state of Rondônia, Brazil, in 2020. (Bruno Kelly / Amazônia Real)