WPFD 2024: Gov’ts must ensure an open civic space for environmental journalists, activists in West Africa

The celebration of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2024 is under the theme “A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the Face of the Environmental Crisis”. The global event to mark the day, to be held in Santiago, Chile, as well as the national celebrations, will focus on two critical issues – the global environmental crisis and the shrinking space for media practice.

The theme could not have been more appropriate, as the world is living through a perilous environmental upheaval. Weather patterns are erratic, sea levels are rising at an alarming rate, threatening coastal communities with erosion and displacement. Biodiversity loss, mainly from indiscriminate logging and unsustainable agricultural practices, coupled with environmental degradation from pollution, sand winning, mining and hydrocarbon production have pushed the global ecosystem to the brink of a meltdown.

In West Africa, the effects of the crisis have included drought, food insecurity, and pastoral livestock movements that have destroyed livelihoods and fueled conflicts, tensions and instability in many countries in the region.

The alarming effects of the climate change crisis in the region have been exacerbated by a growing restriction of the civic space that impedes the work of journalists and activists working to help save the environment.

These environmental journalists and activists are often targeted by individuals and corporations who amass wealth through activities that degrade the environment. The intimidation comes in the form of death threats, physical attacks, arrests and detention and other forms of judicial harassment, and hate and disinformation campaigns aimed at isolating the targeted activists. Sometimes, those who feed off the destruction of the environment influence even traditional and administrative authorities in the communities to antagonise those working to prevent environmental abuses.

For instance, in January 2021, Ghanaian journalist Erastus Asare Donkor and two others from Joy News who were reporting on illegal mining in forest reserves were arrested and detained by military officers. Erastus’ persistent reports have exposed how illegal mining activities by the powerful and politically exposed persons in Ghana are destroying water bodies and many sources of drinking water in the country.

“We were detained unlawfully for five hours in one of our visits to the Apaprama forest. It took several interventions to get us released,” Erastus Asare narrated his ordeal to participants at the Media Foundation for West Africa’s WPFD’s webinar held on May 2, 2024. “My driver was assaulted, punched in the face. Our vehicle’s windscreen was destroyed. Our camera’s were destroyed. They wiped everything clear. If we had not hidden a memory card, we wouldn’t have done that expose on what was happening in the forest.”

In some countries, some governments proscribe organisations working to protect the environment, labelling them as terrorists or unpatriotic foreign agents. Media organisations involved in environmental activism are targeted with closures and other forms of harassment, while the public is dissuaded with heavy-handed police response when they decide to go on demonstrations. It is often a desperate fight against a toxic mix of rapacious capitalism and colluding, repressive authorities at various levels of the governance hierarchy, who use extraction, plunder, violence, death and domination to perpetuate their inhumane acts.

As a freedom of expression organisation, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has been working over the years to highlight these challenges. Besides the reporting and campaigns to end impunity over attacks on environmental journalists and activists, MFWA has produced a number of publications highlighting the issues and their impact on development.

For example, the MFWA highlighted the continued gender imbalance in climate decision spaces via this blog which was published to commemorate International Women’s Day 2022.  The write-up bemoaned the lack of progress towards gender balance in climate negotiations as agreed during the Eighteenth Conference of the Parties (COP18) and as envisaged in decision 36/CP.7 under the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol.

The MFWA has also demonstrated its commitment to environmental issues through the publication of over a dozen stories about the environment and climate change by its investigative journalism project, The Fourth Estate. The online newsroom has highlighted the debilitating effect of air pollution on children’s health, raised alarm over the eroding shorelines of Keta, in the Volta Region of Ghana and decried the environmental devastation wreaked on certain communities in Ghana by illegal mining activities. The Fourth Estate also published a story on the clearing of a 100-acre protected forest by a beer-producing investor and an investigative piece on the illegal cutting of rosewood in northern Ghana for export to China.

Recognizing the urgent need to improve the capacity of journalists to respond to the climate challenge, the MFWA in October 2022 started a five-month Fellowship Programme on Climate Change for journalists selected from 10 West African Countries.  The Fellowship, which involved three months’ residential training in Accra, included intensive practical training workshops on climate change, its challenges and impact and how to report them.

We believe that a relentless media focus from an informed and human-interest standpoint is crucial to stimulating awareness and action regarding the environmental challenge confronting the world. It is therefore crucial for urgent measures to be taken to improve the civic space to enable journalists, activists and ordinary citizens to participate in public discourse on the critical environmental issues confronting the world today.

In this regard, we urge governments in West Africa to take steps to uphold in practice the many national laws and international instruments guaranteeing the independence of the media, the right to freedom of expression and access to information. They should do this by condemning attacks on journalists and activists as well as by ensuring effective investigation and prosecution of such attacks.

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