Earth rights defenders in Honduras work in one of the most dangerous contexts in the world, and journalists are no exception. This January, reporter Igor Abisaí Padilla Chávez was shot and killed in San Pedro Sula. Padilla made his career reporting on local politics and crime.
Earlier this month, a TV journalist in India’s Andhra Pradesh state, Rama Reddy, was beaten for his reporting on illegal sand mining.
Journalists expose important stories but they also expose themselves, again and again. ERI relies on their work, and they deserve our support and protection. Activists must see threats to journalists as threats to their own movements.
According to a report released by Freedom House this month, freedom of the press reached a 13-year low in 2016. Under previously friendly governments, journalists faced increasing surveillance, physical threats and legal harassment. Long-standing regimes increased censorship, criminalizing government criticism and social media activities and in some cases, shutting down media outlets. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, at the end of 2016, almost 300 journalists were imprisoned across the world for their work – the largest number recorded by the group to date.
But threats to journalists vary drastically by region, and so the steps that governments and activists take to help defend them must vary as well.
Where journalists face violence and retaliation for their work, governments must decide whether to stand by, giving their tacit approval of the abuse, or denounce and prevent these attacks on the free press.
Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists today. Last week, prize-winning Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was assassinated. Valdez covered violence related to drug cartels in Sinaloa state. That same day, gunmen attacked a magazine editor in Jalisco, Sonia Cordova, and killed her son, Jonathan Rodríguez Córdova, who worked as a reporter. Hundreds of journalists rallied outside Mexico’s Ministry of Interior in response. They called for an end to attacks on the media – since 2000, over 100 journalists have been murdered in Mexico.
“Let them kill us all, if the sentence for covering this hell is death,” wrote Valdez before his death. “No to silence.”
In contexts like these, it’s clear that states and fellow earth rights defenders need to join the campaigns to end this violence. A community-focused movement on a global scale depends on a free press – one that isn’t intimidated into self-censorship or suppressing stories.
But the same logic applies to legal attacks. Threats to the truth also come from private companies seeking to abuse the power of the law.
In October, two U.S. filmmakers, Lindsey Grayzel and Deia Schlosberg, were arrested and charged with felonies for filming climate activists as they shut off all pipelines that carry tar sands oil into the U.S. Though the cases against the filmmakers were later dropped, four of the “valve-turners” still face charges. Many environmental groups have yet to announce public support for these activists and journalists.
In Southeast Asia, defamation laws represent a significant problem in a region that is otherwise increasingly open in some regards. The press freedom index produced by Reporters Without Borders for 2017 rates Myanmar as one of its most-improved countries, though local news outlets dispute the rating. In Thailand, the state is currently drafting a new media regulation, which has received mixed reactions from the press.
But in March, a journalist for Bangkok’s The Nation, Pratch Rujivanarom, published a story on pollution problems with the Thai-owned Heinda tin Mine in Myanmar. The company behind the mine, Myanmar Pongpipat Co Ltd., is suing Rujivanarom and The Nation, despite scientific studies showing that levels of manganese, arsenic and lead were affecting drinking water, soil and agriculture. The next hearing in the case will be in mid-June.
Activists across the region know the implications of this case for journalists and earth rights defenders, and they’re speaking out. Eighty NGOs in Myanmar and Thailand, along with 30 individuals, issued a statement this week calling for the company to withdraw the suit. The statement also urged the Thai government to strengthen its stance on protecting press freedom, decriminalize defamation and to ensure that the country’s 2007 Computer Crime Act aligns with international law. This is not the first time that a company has attempted to misuse Thai defamation laws to intimidate those who criticize their practices. Thai journalists are also calling the CCA too broad in its wording about “threats to national and public security,” and calling for their government to support press freedom.
But private companies’ exploitation of the law to intimidate earth rights defenders is a global tactic. The day after President Trump was elected, Exxon moved to subpoena more than ten organizations and individuals working on climate change. Exxon claims to be concerned about fraud and libel. But when the Massachusetts Attorney General began investigating the company for committing fraud, by hiding research about climate change for decades, the company responded with a countersuit. This is a move to harass anyone who seeks the truth about Exxon’s practices, and it represents a disturbing and recurrent strategy. We are supporting a number of these subpoenaed activists and organizations in their legal defenses.
Extractive corporations harass those who share the truth about their harmful business models. The fossil fuel industry stands to lose over $10 trillion in wealth if the public does what is necessary to combat climate change. The stakes are daunting, but these intimidation tactics are a sign that popular campaigns can work. In the case against The Nation and Pratch Rujivanarom, allies have attracted limited international attention but it will be essential to keep up this momentum. But in Mexico, Honduras and around the world, continued violence against journalists shows that limited international lipservice has not been enough.
Activists trust journalists to uncover stories that otherwise might never reach the public. But in doing so, we’re asking journalists to continually expose themselves to harassment and violence. To work together effectively, we need to join them in demanding that governments protect the press from attacks, both legal and physical.