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Environmental Journalism in Colombia: Why Are People ‘Shooting the Messengers’

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The topic being explored in this essay was chosen following a conversation with a Tearfund worker who spoke of the global silence surrounding the murder of environmental defenders in Latin America. Colombia ranked 2nd in Global Witness’ list of worst affected regions for the persecution of environmental defenders (Global Witness, 2019). Moreover, Reporters Without Borders reports that in the past decade, two environmental journalists in Colombia have been murdered, with many more facing constant threats and other abuses (RSF, 2020). This essay will argue that environmental journalists are unique in the dangers they face in comparison to human rights activists due to the way that they highlight environmental injustices to the general public and thus they may have a louder voice and a more expansive reach than a human rights defender. The essay will be structured through looking at existing theory surrounding media freedom first followed by various reasonings as to why the experience of these two actors differs within the context of Colombia.

Lamer (2016) raises the argument that free press is of the highest importance with it being embedded in liberal theory, development, political processes and an individual’s freedom of thought. The murder and persecution of both human rights defenders and environmental journalists within Colombia highlights a lack of media freedom. This creates a crisis because people need to be made aware of environmental injustices especially in the new context of global anxiety surrounding the future of the planet. Schwartstein (2020) holds to the concept that interests surrounding the topic of the environment within the press is increasing because of this. This can be accredited to the hard work of both human rights defenders and environmental journalists in holding the government and businesses accountable in their watch-dog role. In 2012, Colombia had numerous privately-owned press outlets and media ownership was not necessarily plural (Whitten-Woodring and Belle, 2014). This suggests a severe lack of representation of all types of public opinion in the Colombian press, possibly demonstrating a lack of media freedom. However, the idea of media freedom is arguably entrenched in western ideas related to journalism and its duty to liberal democracy as well as media institutions being under private ownership (Lugo-Ocando, 2018). There is no one universal approach to media freedom. The relationship between a lack of media freedom and a lack of environmental protection is demonstrated with Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index which finds a link between a scarcity of voice (media freedom) and inadequate environment protection (Simon, 2009). This renders that the silencing of both human rights defenders and environmental activists creates dire consequences for the environment. However, this index has weaknesses in the way that it is difficult to assess environmental protection for countries and put this into a numerical form.

Norris’ (2008) media ownership framework involves three stages which include: the dissolving of a concentrated ownership of the news organizations and thus liberalization of press, followed by an improvement in governance due to the press holding it accountable in its various roles, concluding in improvements in development nationwide. Media ownership in Colombia has arguably not achieved the end goal of this framework. Newspapers are owned by politicians, as well as media corporation owners using their power in the press to manipulate in order to gain an advantageous position for their media organization and other business interests (Marquez-Ramirez and Guerrero, 2017). This could cause a restriction of media freedom in Colombia which therefore has a profound effect on both human rights defenders and environmental journalists because both rely on the press in order to shine a light on injustices. Nonetheless, there are flaws to Norris’ (2008) framework as arguably there is an overemphasis on the power of the media; there is not a causal relationship between media freedom and development, many other factors are at play in the process of development such as government investment in public sector and so it should instead be labelled as a contributor that pushes forward processes of development. In addition to this, other institutions can hold the state accountable, for example, NGOs, human rights defenders and even the public themselves. People have the autonomy and power to change the way that the state conducts itself.

This stresses the fact that the media institution is very different to the human rights one as LaMay (2009: 4) argues “media, unlike most other democratic institutions, are rooted not in political or civil society, but in economic society; as a revenue source, the media is always troublesome, and in editorial terms its effects can be restrictive rather than liberating”. This raises the point that environmental journalists can be limited by the company they work for and the global market. Similarly, human rights defenders may also have the same limits due to the NGO they work for or they may have more freedom if they are freelance. Being part of an NGO may mean that a human rights defender has to work in a certain way, for example, using the ‘naming and shaming’ strategy in order to bring to light human rights violations (Marcinkute, 2011). Arguably though, in order to execute this idea and get the publicity they need, both human rights defenders and NGOs rely on the press, as there may be more of a response from the government due to negative media attention or the threat of it (Thomas, 2001). This emphasizes the power that journalists can hold over various politicians and the government itself, the power of information and truth which can thus lead to the state acting in such a way as to limit that threat and power. Notwithstanding, gaining international attention does not equate to a change in the structural issues that have caused the abuses (Tate, 2007).

Dependency theory is the idea that one country is reliant on another in order to help fulfil economic obligations (Caporaso, 1980) which can involve transnational businesses in developed countries holding authority over said country and their resources (Hardy, 2014). Heavily tied to Marxist framework, this theory can link to the media political economy itself as political interests are becoming more tied to those of multi-national corporations (MNCs) due to the influences of capitalism and so media outlets can be controlled by the state and MNCs interests. The increasingly powerful influence of corporate players globally means that they believe they can take their own action in order to silence the voices of both journalists and environmental defenders (Schwartzstein, 2020). Moreover, it means the media itself can be censored, relating to the hypodermic needle theory which claims that mass media delivers a message which can cause immediate behavior change for the audience (Nwabueze and Okonkwo, 2018). In this way, environmentally degrading business interests can be depicted as positive economic flagship developments and thus the audience is not aware of the environmental implications of these projects, meaning they will not act against this. However, there are other elements that affect the way someone receives information from the press, such as morals, education and religious orientation. Also, there are flaws to the dependency theory, such as the idea that developing countries are helpless victims to western countries and companies, but these countries can be autonomous and use capitalism to their advantage whilst still maintaining power over their resources, like China.

Colombia, however, has not had the same success as China in this sense. A study that interviewed environmental journalists in Latin America found that when they spoke out against the growth of extractive industries, they were then faced with politicians seeing their articles as an act of betrayal as some politicians emphasize the economy having priority over the protection of the environment. But this is not just an issue for journalists: in the region of La Jagua the construction of the Quimbo hydroelectric project has displaced many indigenous people and so environmental defenders have been fighting for the rights of the people there but with the consequence of being subjected to violent police enforcement (Cousins and Schmitz, 2021). This highlights that MNCs are degrading environments without any accountability due to the state’s desire to establish a better economy. It seems that economic interests are at a constant clash with environmental protection. In this case, environmental defenders may be at more of a risk from persecution because they are in a sense tied lesser to the political economy than a media corporation is and so they have more of a freedom to speak out against MNCs thus endangering them more.

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Notwithstanding, there are blurred lines between environmental journalism and activism, this is because of the role of journalists in investigating and campaigning on environmental issues within their duty of contributing to the civic forum (Oleson, 2008). This can depend on the type of journalism, for example advocacy journalism and also the media ownership too (Freedman, 2020). For example, if a journalist is writing for an NGO, then they may have more freedom with their opinion within the article. The advocacy role can also be taken on by human rights defenders due to the importance of aiming to inform the public about major environmental issues (Norris, 2008). The role of a human rights defender and a journalist is therefore incredibly similar and thus journalists can struggle in their identity and representation because of the difficulty to remain objective. When the environment is being abused and manipulated there is always a secondary effect on people and with journalists taking on the role of being watchdogs to the state, or multi-national corporations, sometimes remaining unbiased can equate to not doing enough. Whereas human rights defenders may find it easier to take on these roles and may feel firmer in their identity because they can be subjective. There is confusion between these two roles worldwide and consequently, the murder of environmental journalists can go undocumented because they are listed as activists (Schwartzstein, 2020). This highlights the lack of respect and autonomy that an environmental journalist receives.

Yet, there are other factors that can create a negative relationship and separation between these two players, for example, the press having the potential to slander the work of human rights defenders. When the Special Rapporteur from the Office of High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) went to Colombia in 2018, they concluded that human rights defenders “lack positive social and public recognition and are undermined and criminalized because of their human rights work by state and non-state actors” (United Nations General Assembly, 2018:17). Furthermore, Ghazoul and Kleinschroth (2018) assert that it is a common occurrence that the international press only reacts following the death of an environment defender. The reference to a lack of support may suggest that the press is not painting the work of human rights defenders in a good light. The press may also avoid associating with human rights defenders due to them being depicted by the state as the ‘enemy’ but states also have the power to vilify the press (Houry, 2020). Journalists can sometimes have more protection due to their title as a professional. Despite this, journalists as individuals cannot be solely blamed for negative perceptions of human rights defenders because they may be restricted by what they write due to a lack of media freedom.

Due to increased threats of both of the roles of environmental activist and journalist, protection is essential for these people and their work. The National Protection Unit (UNP) in Colombia works on providing protection to both human rights defenders and journalists (Cousins and Schmitz, 2021). This presents many flaws however, as there is a severe lack of perspective when it comes to gender, ethnicity and context when it comes to implementing protection (Quintero Gomez, 2020). Moreover, the main aim of UNP is concentrated on immediate individual protection rather than addressing the structural problems of persecution. Overall, there is a total lack of research on analysis of protection measures for both defenders and journalists (Bennett et al., 2015). Moreover, much of the research on the UNP is looked at from the biased perspective of defenders and not the Colombian government. This means that the protection of human rights defenders and environmental journalists cannot be compared in an all-embracing way. What can be concluded from this however, is that the current measures are failing in Colombia and much more needs to be done.

The invisible hand of criterion when it comes to international journalism can influence the journalists work. This is because journalism can be motivated by personal interests, but also a provocative article can boost both sales and reputation of the journalist (Oleson, 2008). This can work to the advantage or disadvantage of human rights defenders, depending on the ‘newsworthiness’ of the environmental injustice that they are investigating. In the interest of this, Schwartzstein (2020) raises the argument that environmental journalism can come across as ‘boring and irrelevant’ and so there is a lack of representation of it within the global media sphere (RSF, 2020) due to an absence of funding from media organizations also. This means that people can be ignorant to the environmental injustices occurring on their own doorstep due to a severe lack of information (Simon, 2009). Similarly, the Special Advisor’s Office for Human Rights in Colombia and other human rights agencies are chronically underfunded and thus have a lack of staff (Tate, 2007). This demonstrates a severe shortfall in resources and publicity for the work of environmental defenders as the press is not always able to support them and make issues known.

Moreover, environmental journalists cannot always reach the indigenous, rural populations like human rights defenders do. In Colombia, as of 2007, indigenous people made up 2% of Colombia’s population but had control over 25% of Colombia’s land (Tate, 2007). In recent years there has been exponential growth of mining and agro-business industries owed to foreign direct investment with the Colombian government encouraging this through lax laws on the environment (Cousins and Schmitz, 2020) leading to the displacement of indigenous communities. This can create a divide between the rural indigenous populations and the cities, whereby media outlets have to serve the interests of authorities and businesses and consequently, being unable to report on environmental injustices occurring in the peripheries of Colombia (Schwartzstein, 2020). This demonstrates the effect that globalization is having on the global media industry, with press concentration in the cities meaning there is a lack of coverage and recognition for the rural populations. This all exacerbates the problematic way that governments are handling the land management and territory rights of local and indigenous populations due to the weighted interests of unsustainable development being pursued instead (Ghazoul and Kleinschroth, 2018). Environmental defenders have a fundamental role in helping to fight for the rights of indigenous populations and this can also include the work of journalists, who may be free-lance or from a local news outlet. But arguably, journalists aren’t producing environmental coverage for indigenous populations on the scale that is required and this can be destructive for the work of defenders too. This work can put activists at an increased danger because of an inconsistent distribution of protection for them geographically (Bennett et al., 2015).

Overall, environmental journalists are unique in their experiences due to their role in amplifying the voices of human rights defenders to the nation of Colombia. They do this through publishing in newspapers which have the power to reach more people and even have an international influence. This can bring about policies in order to protect the environment as the state is held accountable by global players. However, this comes with structural restrictions of the press being entwined with the global economy, western influence and capitalism. As well as this, there are societal restrictions regarding the corruption of MNCs and the state that are degrading the environment and offering a severe lack of protection for both journalists and human rights defenders. There are implications with these arguments however, owing to the idea that environmental journalists shouldn’t be compared to environmental defenders when the roles are so similar in many ways. Moreover, in Colombia itself, the evidence is clear that more environmental defenders have been killed than environmental journalists highlighting that their voices are loud enough without the influence of the press. But environmental journalism is still small and under-funded so comparing these two figures would be unjust. Severe intervention is required in order to protect the work of both defenders and journalists.

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Environmental Journalism in Colombia: Why Are People ‘Shooting the Messengers’. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-journalism-in-colombia-why-are-people-shooting-the-messengers/
“Environmental Journalism in Colombia: Why Are People ‘Shooting the Messengers’.” Edubirdie, 28 Oct. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-journalism-in-colombia-why-are-people-shooting-the-messengers/
Environmental Journalism in Colombia: Why Are People ‘Shooting the Messengers’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-journalism-in-colombia-why-are-people-shooting-the-messengers/> [Accessed 6 Feb. 2023].
Environmental Journalism in Colombia: Why Are People ‘Shooting the Messengers’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Oct 28 [cited 2023 Feb 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-journalism-in-colombia-why-are-people-shooting-the-messengers/
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