The intersections of press freedom and the environment

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Protesters and journalists are tear-gassed by Georgia law enforcement during a "Block Cop City" march in Atlanta on Nov. 13, 2023. Environmental journalists face a wide range of threats, from arrests and assault to legal intimidation.

Courtesy of Carlos Berríos Polanco.

Environmental journalists are increasingly under attack, according to a new report by UNESCO released on World Press Freedom Day, in recognition of this year’s theme, “A press for the planet: Journalism in the face of the environmental crisis.”

Disturbing statistics documented in the report show that over the past 50 years, 44 environmental journalists have been killed. In the past 15 years, hundreds have been attacked — often by state actors — while covering environmental issues around the world.

Unfortunately, environmental journalists in the U.S. aren’t immune from these and other threats to their newsgathering rights.

Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) and the Society of Environmental Journalists recently hosted a conversation about the obstacles U.S. journalists face when reporting on environmental issues.

FPF’s Deputy Editor Adam Glenn led a discussion with writer and photographer Carlos Berríos Polanco, reporter Halle Parker, and FPF’s Deputy Advocacy Director Caitlin Vogus about the barriers that stand in the way of reporting on the environment. Watch the whole thing, or read some highlights below.

Tracking press freedom violations against U.S. environmental journalists

Data can provide important context to the personal stories of environmental journalists on the front lines covering stories such as climate change or pipeline protests, Glenn explained.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 36 press freedom violations related to journalists covering environmental stories since its founding in 2017. The largest category of violations is arrests and criminal charges, and nearly all are related to journalists covering protests.Other violations include searches and seizures of journalists’ equipment, assaults by law enforcement officers or private individuals, and legal orders like prior restraints.

Environmental journalists face a broad range of threats from physical assaults to subtle legal maneuvers, Glenn said, as exemplified by the stories of the two journalists featured in this conversation.

Sadly not uncommon for police to attack environmental journalists

Freelance journalist Berríos Polanco shared his experience of being assaulted by police while documenting a demonstration against the building of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — known as “Cop City” — in the South River Forest on Nov. 13, 2023.

Police stopped activists as they were marching toward the construction site and began launching tear gas canisters. The first landed at the feet of a group of at least 30 journalists — including Berríos Polanco — who were standing ahead of the march. Berríos Polanco told the Tracker that he believed police purposefully targeted the group of journalists.

“I was pushed. I was tear-gassed,” Berríos Polanco said. “Sadly, not an uncommon thing that you experience as a reporter these days. And it's emblematic of the way that press are treated throughout the United States and the world.”

In the wake of the tear-gassing, officers repeatedly told journalists to stop recording and move away from the masses of protesters. When reporters attempted to return, officers threatened to arrest them, claiming that the area was an “active crime scene.”

That, too, Berríos Polanco believes, was a tactic police used to intentionally cut off journalists’ access. “Environmental journalists are usually stopped by either state or non-state actors who have a vested investment in whatever environmental journalists are covering. And they often don't allow them to do their jobs because they want to obscure what's going on,” Berríos Polanco explained.

Intimidation tactics make environmental reporters look over their shoulders

Parker spoke about another insidious tactic used against environmental journalism: the abuse of legal processes to harass reporters.

In 2022, Parker was reporting on an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency into “Cancer Alley,” a heavily polluted area along the Mississippi River primarily inhabited by Black communities. Parker contacted the EPA for information and conducted interviews with agency officials.

It all seemed like a very normal interaction between a reporter and a federal agency. But in January of this year, Parker learned of an unusual public records request made by the state of Louisiana to the EPA, seeking communications between the EPA and several journalists, including Parker. The state filed the FOIA request because it believed the EPA had illegally leaked information to reporters.

Parker’s first reaction was to scoff at the request. But as time went on, she became more concerned. “It makes you start trying to think and retrace all the steps that you took,” she said, adding,”That can start to get a little intimidating.”

Legal harassment like this can make journalists think twice about reporting, Parker explained. “There are many such actions, and they're not as visible,” Parker added. “And yet they do keep reporters from doing their work or cause them to look over their shoulders in ways that are chilling.”

Speak out and fight back

According to Vogus, Berríos Polanco’s and Parker’s stories are disturbing but unfortunately not surprising, as attacks on press freedoms become increasingly common in the U.S.

Even as attacks on the press grow, Vogus said, “We can't become numb to them and we can't just come to accept them. We have to speak out against them and we have to fight back.”

Protests are a particularly dangerous place for journalists, including environmental reporters. Vogus urged environmental journalists to familiarize themselves with both their legal rights and practical tips for staying safe while covering demonstrations, including securing their data and devices.

She also condemned the use of FOIA to try to bully and intimidate journalists, as in Parker’s case. Louisiana is “trying to use FOIA to dig up what they see as ‘dirt’ about reporters, when it's really just reporters doing their jobs and doing nothing wrong,” Vogus said.

Finally, Vogus emphasized the importance of safeguarding environmental journalists’ sources, many of whom may face threats from governments or powerful corporations. The PRESS Act, a bipartisan federal reporter-source shield bill, would help all journalists protect their confidential sources and encourage whistleblowers to come forward.

For more insights into how press violations are affecting the work of environmental journalists and how those infringements should be addressed, watch the whole discussion.

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