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Ethics for environmental journalists

Jim Detjen reports on a recent conference that agreed upon a code of ethics for environmental journalists.

The author is Professor and Director at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism in Michigan, USA.

Enevironmental journalists from more than 40 nations adopted an international ethics code at the sixth world conference of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) held in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The conference was held amidst tight security from October 19th-23rd 1998 in Wadduwa, just outside Colombo. Military personnel patrolled the streets during the conference because of concern about terrorism. For more than a decade, Sri Lanka, an island nation off the southeast coast of India, has been wracked by violence as a result of an ongoing civil war with the Tamil Tigers who are attempting to create a new Hindu nation in the northern part of the island.

The conference was organized by the Sri Lanka Environmental Journalists Forum, the Asia Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists. Among the countries represented at the meeting were Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brazil, Cameroon, PR China, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guyana, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Maldives, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nepal, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, United States and Vietnam.

“Adopting an ethics code acceptable to journalists from many different nations and cultures was quite a challenge,” said the author, who was one of two journalists representing the United States. “Journalism is practised differently around the world in many different styles. I believe we have made an important start in adopting a core set of ethical principles that environmental journalists agree on worldwide.”

The following are the eight principles that constitute the code of ethics agreed upon for environmental journalists.

1. The right to a clean environment and sustainable development is fundamental and closely connected to the right to life, good health and well being. Environmental journalists should inform the public about threats to the environment, whether it is on the local, regional, national or global level.

2. Often, the media is the only source of information the public has about the environment. The journalist’s duty is to heighten public awareness about environmental issues. Environmental journalists should strive to report a variety of views about these issues.

3. By informing the public, the journalist plays a vital role in enabling people to take actions to protect the environment. The journalist’s duty is not only to alert people about threats to the environment but also to follow up on such threats with additional reporting. Journalists should also write about possible solutions to environmental problems.

4. Journalists should not be influenced on environmental issues by vested interests, whether they be from political, governmental or from non-governmental organizations. Journalists ought to keep a distance from such interests and not become an ally of them. Journalists should remain independent and report all sides of any environmental controversy.

5. Journalists should cite the sources of their information and avoid alarmist, speculative and biased reporting. Journalists should cross-check the authenticity and accuracy of information provided by all sources.

6. Environmental journalists should foster equity in gaining access to environmental information and should help journalists in developing nations gain access to the same information. Electronic retrieval of data via the Internet is a particularly useful and egalitarian tool.

7. Journalists should respect the right to privacy of individuals who have been affected by environmental catastrophes and natural disasters.

8. Environmental journalists should correct information that later proves to be incorrect or biased.

During the five-day conference, the journalists discussed ecotourism, biodiversity, climate change, water issues, urban environmental problems in megacities, environmental journalism education, broadcast journalism and investigative reporting in newspapers. The journalists also discussed problems faced by environmental journalists worldwide, including censorship, intimidation and imprisonment.

There are a great many environmental journalists around the globe who continually face a struggle to fairly report on issues that should be disseminated to a wider audience.

In Vladivostock, Russia, a journalist named Captain Grigory Pasko is on trial for treason as a result of articles he wrote about the Russian Navy’s dumping of nuclear wastes into the Pacific Ocean. The Russian government does not dispute that the dumping of radioactive military wastes has occurred. Pasko’s articles for Boyevaya Vakhta, the newspaper of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, are well-documented. But government officials say his reporting disclosed sensitive military secrets. Since his arrest in November 1997, he has spent 15 months in a tuberculosis-infested prison. He is now being kept in solitary confinement. If convicted, he could stay in jail for another 20 years.

The Russian government’s strategy in dealing with Pasko, a career Naval officer, is Machiavellian. It decided to prosecute him as an officer who disclosed military secrets rather than as a journalist uncovering an environmental scandal.

The specific charges in the ten-point indictment are classified. His trial is closed to the media. His guilt or innocence will be decided by a panel of judges in a military court. Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch, PEN, and other international groups have come to Pasko’s aid. Amnesty International argues that he is a “prisoner of conscience,” not a traitor.

The trial of Captain Pasko illustrates the difficulty that journalists in Russia and in many other nations face when they report about the environmental abuses of their governments and powerful special interests.

In Ghana, Ben Ephson, an environmental reporter for Business in Ghana magazine, was imprisoned for six months as a result of stories he wrote.

In Albania, television correspondent Xhemal Mato was threatened by gangsters with arson and kidnapping as a result of stories he wrote about the destruction of endangered plants in national parks. Even though industrial thugs promised to burn down his house if he continued his reporting, Mato was not deterred. Ultimately, the destruction of the parks was halted.

In Algeria, M’hamed Rebah has documented environmental problems in a nation where scores of journalists have been murdered for reporting facts that Islamic fundamentalists do not want known. Despite the dangers. M’hamed continues because he says it is the duty of journalists “to tell the truth.”

In the Philippines, investigative reporter Marites Vitug was sued for criminal libel as a result of stories she wrote about illegal logging. If she is convicted, she may go to prison. Nonetheless, she is luckier than some of her fellow journalists. After several wrote about the deforestation problems, they simply disappeared and were never heard from again.

In Peru, environmental journalist Barbara D’Achille, was killed by the Shining Path guerrillas while she was on her way to write about problems in rural development for her newspaper, El Comercio.

Similar stories have occurred all over the world. Perhaps this is not too surprising. Environmental journalists write frequently about environmental abuses carried out by industry and other special interests. When powerful organizations are criticized, they often strike back.

One of the things journalists can do to stop these abuses is to use the power of the media to mobilize public opinion against those who are killing the messengers. One of the organizations that has worked to support threatened environmental journalists is the International Federation of Environmental Journalists which I have headed since 1994.

The International Federation of Environmental Journalists is an umbrella organization representing about 40 national organizations of environmental journalists with more than 6000 members worldwide. The organization has individual members living in more than 60 countries around the world. Members share information about threatened journalists and write about these abuses. As an organization, we have written strong letters to aid embattled environmental journalists and we have lobbied international bodies to take action.

To obtain membership of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, contact Michael Schweres, who is co-Executive Director, or the author at the address below. Members receive the organization’s quarterly newsletter, “The Planet’s Voice,” plus a periodic tipsheet about international environmental issues and access to the International Federation of Environmental Journalist’s listserver.

Another organization that monitors abuses is the Committee to Protect Journalists. This organization documents abuse of press freedom and works to help journalists in trouble. Membership, including a subscription to the newsletter, Dangerous Assignments, costs US$35 a year, or US$15 for students, and is available by contacting the Committee at the address given below.

Still another group is the Global Response Environmental Action Network. This organization investigates environmental abuses (including assaults on journalists) and publicizes the problems via an international email network. It encourages its members to lobby governmental bodies and has been successful in halting illegal environmental activities in Nigeria, Nicaragua and other nations. The Network can be contacted at the address given below.

By banding together and helping each other, environmental journalists can both champion press freedom and improve the quality of life on the planet.

At the meeting, the Sri Lanka Environmental Journalists gave its International Green Pen Award to nine journalists for their contributions to environmental journalism around the globe. Those honoured were: Quamrul Chowdhury of Bangladesh; Yang Mao of PR China; Valentin Thurn of Germany; Marta Sarvari of Hungary; Darryl D’Monte of India; Aditya Man Shrestha of Nepal; Manuel Satorre of the Philippines; Vijay Menon of Singapore; and the author.

Bogota, Colombia, will host the seventh world conference, expected to be held in October 1999. The conference for the year 2000 will be held near Cairo, Egypt.

Further information

Jim Detjen, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Room 341, Communication Arts Building, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1212, USA. Fax: 1-517-3557710. Email: Web:

Committee to Protect Journalists, 330 Seventh Avenue, 12th Floor, New York, New York 10001, USA. Email: Web:

Global Response Environmental Action Network, PO Box 7490, Boulder, CO 80306-7490, USA. Email: Web:

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