Reporters covering environment and climate in Latin America confront threats and harassment in the field

Brazilian journalist Daniel Camargos was covering a land conflict in the Brazilian Amazon in December 2020 when he was surprised by a rifle pointed at his face.

The weapon was in the hands of a man in a black t-shirt, in the company of six others in plain clothes who identified themselves as military police officers.

“The sensation, as the rifle came very close, is that I tasted death,” Camargos told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). 

This is an extreme example of the risks faced by journalists covering environmental and climate stories. The risks include physical violence, detention, judicial harassment, online attacks, restrictions on freedom of movement and access to information, according to the report “Climate and Environmental Journalism Under Fire,” published in February by the International Press Institute (IPI).

The study is based on interviews with 40 journalists dedicated to this kind of coverage in 21 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Barbara Trionfi, lead author of the study and former executive director of IPI, previously wrote a report dedicated to strategies to support environmental and climate journalism. She told LJR that the security conditions in which these journalists work and the threats they face is “a very under-covered issue.”

“For me, it was really important to understand the press freedom challenges that journalists face in covering environmental and climate stories in order to better be able to find solutions to address them,” Trionfi said.

The report contains excerpts from interviews carried out with journalists and explores the main threats they face because of the work they do. It also offers recommendations for States, media outlets, funders and support networks for journalists to provide adequate support to these professionals.

The majority of journalists interviewed for the study said they had been the target of physical or legal attacks with the aim of limiting their coverage of certain topics. They also agreed, according to the report, that, “journalists investigating environmental issues – and especially those investigating businesses and industries causing environmental harm – face particularly serious risks because their stories challenge the sizable economic interests of powerful actors, including private companies, organized crime groups, and (corrupt) state actors, all of whom may go to great lengths to protect those interests.”

Trends in Latin America

According to Trionfi, journalists interviewed for the report who work in Latin America frequently reported concerns about connections between organized crime and private companies engaged in polluting activities and predatory extractivism, such as mining and deforestation.

“Very often, either the organized crime has an involvement in this business [like mining and logging], or they operate in the same regions, so there is an interest from these two groups of people that operate either entirely illegally or on the border of illegality to protect each other,” Trionfi said.

Colombian Dora Montero Carvajal, editor of Mongabay in Latin America, is one of the journalists from the region who was interviewed to produce the report. She told LJR that “it is very complex to move” in the border regions covered by the Amazon Rainforest. “There are many armed [groups], there’s a lot of mafia circulating,” said Carvajal, who has covered these issues for more than a decade. According to her, armed groups have multiplied in these regions in recent years.

Journalist Dora Montero Carvajal on a boat during a reporting trip in the Colombian Amazon. (Courtesy)

Journalist Dora Montero Carvajal on a reporting trip in the Colombian Amazon. (Courtesy)

“Before, armed actors were easily recognizable. One knew that they were self-defense groups, that they were a paramilitary group, a block of the ELN [National Liberation Army]. Right now this is mixed. There are dissidents [of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)], there are drug trafficking groups, there are armed groups that work for Mexican drug traffickers, there are armed groups that work for Brazilian drug traffickers, there is everything. (...) One does not know who really operates in the areas, because since there is so much illegal business it is very difficult and they are fighting among themselves. So it is very risky to appear like a mole, for example,” she said.

Governments and security forces in the attack on journalists

Environmental and climate journalists working in Latin America reported to Trionfi another threat that is very present in the region: the role of State security forces in protecting private entities involved in polluting or illegal activities.

“The police, instead of being there to defend and protect the journalists, whenever the journalists turn to the authorities, they get threatened as well,” she said.

When Camargos was threatened with a rifle in December 2020 by someone in plain clothes identified as a military police officer, he was with photographer Fernando Martinho covering a conflict involving landless peasants, farmers and military police in Rondônia.

“It was a very bad feeling, because it took me a while to understand that they were military police officers without uniforms. In my head, at the time, I thought 'these are farmers' security guards, they're going to think we're here allied with their enemies, who are the landless, and they're going to wipe us all out,’” said Camargos, who was not interviewed for the IPI report.

He began to have recurring nightmares about the episode, in which the situation developed “very brutally,” he said.

When British journalist Dom Phillips was murdered in June 2022 along with Brazilian Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Pereira in the Javari Valley, an Amazon region where the borders between Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet, Camargos considered that his nightmare had come true.

“The feeling is that the worst that could happen happened in the worst possible way. That nightmare that started back in 2019, which became much more intensified with each trip to the field during the government [of former president Jair] Bolsonaro (...) The worst nightmare happened,” he said.

Camargos was a friend of Phillips and the two had worked together covering the Amazon, for which they were finalists for the 2020 Gabo Prize. When he learned of the disappearances of Phillips and Pereira, Camargos went to the location to cover the searches for the two for Repórter Brasil, a media outlet where he has worked since 2018.

This coverage gave rise to the documentary “Reports of a correspondent of the war in the Amazon,” directed by Camargos and Ana Aranha, special projects coordinator at Repórter Brasil.

Daniel Camargos and Dom Phillips in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: João Laet/Repórter Brasil

Journalists Daniel Camargos and Dom Phillips on a reporting trip in Pará, Brazil, in 2019. (Photo: João Laet/Repórter Brasil)

Camargos narrates the documentary in the first person, recounting his experience covering the murder of his colleague and friend, the violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples and the devastation of the Amazon Rainforest. The documentary presents Camargos' perspective as a person affected by everything he sees and experiences as a journalist, and also features interviews with other professionals who dedicate themselves to this kind of coverage.

Trionfi heard from journalists that environmental coverage became much more dangerous during Bolsonaro's government (2019-2022). In addition to constantly attacking the press, Bolsonaro “was seen to promote deforestation by supporting the agribusiness industry,” the report said.

With the departure of Bolsonaro and the arrival of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president in January 2023, Trionfi said she heard from the journalists interviewed that “the situation has improved for environmentalists and for environmental journalists”. However, there are several state and municipal governments with a Bolsonarist orientation. “The reality on the ground there has not changed. The central government, of course, makes a difference. But of course, the local government has to support that, too,” she said.

Camargos also said “it has improved, but it is still bad.”

“For security in the countryside, I think very little has changed and perhaps it will become more dangerous this year,” he said, referring to municipal elections taking place in October. “Now we have the risk of municipal disputes, which sometimes we cannot see from afar. So it’s another component, because sometimes the candidate for mayor is a land grabber, a logger, and an article from you will hinder his candidacy.”

Safety protocols

A strong trend among environmental journalists in Latin America is an awareness of the importance of establishing and following safety protocols when reporting in the field, Trionfi said.

“The journalists I spoke to in Latin America – elsewhere as well, but in Latin America in particular – said ‘risk assessment and safety protocols save lives,’” she said. “It seems that the awareness about the importance of safety protocol is hitting Latin America before other regions, probably because it's a region where journalists have been facing so much violence.”

Carvajal echoed Trionfi's hypothesis. According to her, “the fact that we have so many safety protocols means that, although we are able to get to places, we are not calm when we get to those places.”

“In any case, we do it, as journalistic work has been done many times – and I am talking about Colombia and the conflict zones – and it is risking a lot, prioritizing the social responsibility we have to inform and not leave the communities on their own,” she said.

Carvajal has had experience following Mongabay's safety protocols for journalists in the field. The protocols include contact details for people who can help the professional in the field and for security forces in the area. It also includes “a super meticulous work schedule,” she said, with planned activities and movements and established times for the journalist to contact the newsroom or a designated colleague, such as Carvajal.

“I understand the importance of them feeling that someone is with them. (...) You have to take it calmly, but there is always a little anxiety, especially those parts of the journey when there is total silence, because there is no [telephone or internet] signal. So it's complex,” Carvajal said.

Camargos recalled that, in addition to the safety protocol, it is important to have a satellite communicator, which allows messages to be exchanged even outside the cell phone network and the journalist's location to be monitored. He also said it is essential to find out about the terrain in every way possible, including talking to colleagues who have already been there.

“You can’t arrive as an adventurer, without knowing, without researching. (...) One [journalist] can help the other, beyond the protocols and working conditions that companies have to offer,” he said.

Local journalism and an information void

Trionfi said her previous report, which covered strategies to support environmental and climate journalism, emphasized the importance of local journalism.

“They know the reality on the ground, the polluting agents there; they know what the solutions are for the community and how much the community suffers under the environmental degradation caused in the region. And local media typically enjoy more trust from their readers than other media,” she said.

However, the most recent report points out that there are many topics that local journalists cannot cover, as they are more exposed to risks than journalists who come from other regions. According to her, many of the journalists interviewed said that local professionals can cover climate solutions, but cannot carry out environmental investigations.

“They're part of the community, they cannot get out. Everybody knows them, everybody knows their family, they're going to be threatened,” Trionfi said.

She plans to explore more about how it is possible to support local journalists to do environmental and climate journalism and mitigate the risks they face in this kind of reporting. She also said she wanted to dedicate herself to the question of what is lost due to attacks on environmental and climate journalism and which topics journalists have the most difficulty covering.

“It's important also to understand ‘okay, why do we need to care about all these attacks?’ It's not only because it's a violation of human rights, it's not only because it's the lives of human beings. But it is because if we're going to address the climate crisis, we need the information. We need to understand, what is the information that we're missing here?” she said.

IPI will organize a panel on attacks on environmental journalism during the 31st World Press Freedom Day Conference, which will be in Santiago, Chile, from May 2 to 4. The conference is organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and this year the theme is “A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the face of the Environmental Crisis.”

UNESCO and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) are developing a study on the safety of environmental journalists and invite these professionals to respond to an online survey, available in seven languages ​​(including Spanish, English and Portuguese), until March 28. The results will be presented during the conference.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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