UNESCO Issues Report on Dangers Facing Environmental Reporters, Urges Governments to End Impunity for Attacks

Ms Audrey Azoulay,
Director-General, UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has launched a new report on the challenges and threats facing environmental reporters and called on Governments to end impunity for cases of attacks against journalists covering environmental issues by thoroughly investigating all such cases and sanctioning the perpetrators.

The report also urges governments to implement safeguards against civil litigation used to intimidate and silence journalists and media workers while criminal defamation laws should be repealed.

Published on May 15, 2024 in partnership with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the report is titled “Press and Planet in Danger: Safety of Environmental Journalists – Trends, Challenges and Recommendations”.

The report is part of the UNESCO series, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media
Development, and examines attacks against journalists covering environmental issues over the past 15 years. It is designed to serve as a reference for UNESCO Member States, media organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and academia.

Key trends identified in the report include the following:

• At least 749 journalists, groups of journalists, and news media outlets reporting on environmental issues have been attacked in 89 countries between 2009 and 2023, in all regions of the world.

• Over 300 attacks occurred in the past five years, marking a 42 percent increase from the preceding five-year period. This surge is attributed to a rise in physical attacks like assaults, arrests and harassment, and legal actions including defamation lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

• State actors have committed at least half of the 749 attacks while private actors are responsible for at least a Quarter of such attacks.

• A total of 44 journalists reporting on environmental issues have been killed in 15 different countries between 2009 and 2023, with only five cases resulting in convictions. At least 24 journalists survived murder attempts.

• Between 2009 to 2023, at least 204 journalists and news outlets covering environmental issues have faced legal attacks. State actors filed criminal charges against 93 of them. 39 journalists have been imprisoned, primarily in Asia and the Pacific. Defamation lawsuits are common with at least 63 cases, predominantly in Europe and North America.

• There have been at least 194 journalists attacked at environmental protests in the past 15 years, mainly in Europe, North America, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Police and military forces are the main perpetrators with 89 attacks, while protesters account for 32 attacks.

• In a survey conducted by UNESCO and the IFJ with 905 respondents from 129 countries, over 70 percent reported being subject to attacks, threats or pressure while covering environmental issues. Men reporters experience all types of attacks more frequently than women, except for digital aggressions. Some 407 respondents (45 percent) said they have practiced self-censorship driven by fears of potential attacks, having their sources exposed to harm, and being aware that their environmental coverage might conflict with the interests of their employers or advertisers.

The report makes the following recommendations for addressing and responding to the situation:

• Governments must end impunity for cases of attacks against journalists covering environmental issues and under their international obligations, they must thoroughly investigate and sanction all cases of violence against journalists covering environmental issues. This requires pursuing and exhausting lines of inquiry connected to the victim’s journalistic work. Additionally, governments should improve existing prevention mechanisms and strengthen protective measures to effectively counter the threats faced by journalists covering the environment.

• Environmental protests are events of clear public interest and, in accordance with the UNESCO guidelines on “The role of law enforcement agents: ensuring safety of journalists during public demonstrations and elections” (2023), no authorisation can be required of journalists wanting to report on such events, and reporters do not require special accreditation to cover them. Law enforcement agencies must also allow physical access to the press to demonstrations and not confine them to a specific area, even when they happen within special delimited areas like reservoirs or indigenous lands. Police and military must respect the safety and integrity of reporters covering environmental protests who are identifiable as press by their clothing, equipment or identity documents, and restrain from using force or any way of obstruction against them.

• In accordance with UNESCO’s issue brief on “The ‘misuse’ of the judicial system to attack freedom of expression”, governments should implement safeguards against civil litigation used to intimidate and silence journalists and media workers. Criminal defamation laws should be repealed, and other laws that criminalise legitimate environmental journalistic activities, including the coverage of climate-related protests, should be abolished, or reviewed in accordance with international standards.

• Even when media outlets are supported by State funding, editorial freedom and public interest reporting should be guaranteed, including when covering environmental issues involving government interests. Additionally, governments should restrain from imposing blanket bans, ordering internet shutdowns, restricting media access, or otherwise curtailing the coverage of extreme weather events and their aftermath, even if such reports critique the way authorities respond to such events.

• Journalists should be trained in hostile environments and emergency first aid training. Reporters covering environmental issues often report from locations marked by social unrest, conflict or even war. News organisations, journalism networks, donors, multilateral organisations and other concerned stakeholders should provide training to ensure journalists are equipped to respond to attacks and threats.

• Media outlets and employers must prioritise journalists’ safety, dedicating adequate resources to develop appropriate risk assessments and safety protocols, including for protests and extreme weather events. Risk assessment and safety protocols should be specifically crafted to local contexts, taking into account that each environmental reporting project carries unique safety challenges.

• Journalists need to access safety equipment, including trackers, satellite communicators, drones, and other devices that can significantly reduce risks and act as a lifeline in particularly volatile situations. However, the cost of such equipment often makes it inaccessible to smaller, underfunded news organisations, community journalists and freelancers. Journalism networks, donors, multilateral organisations and other concerned stakeholders could facilitate access to these tools and provide necessary training on how to use them effectively.

• Journalists reporting on environmental issues often face criminal and civil actions aimed at curbing their work or as punishment for it. They must receive legal support, which should be an obligation for news organisations and employers. When direct support is not available, journalism networks, donors, advocacy groups and pro-bono lawyers should intervene and offer assistance where possible. UN organisations, including UNESCO, under the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, should further seek to enhance legal support and defence to journalists, including through the Global Media Defence Fund, specifically focusing on this issue.