Journalists are dying – literally — to tell stories of environmental plunder

Blogs, 19 September 2012

It’s a sad reflection of reality that my first reaction to the news of Hang Serei Oudom’s murder was not one of shock or surprise.

A forested area in Mondulkiri province, eastern Cambodia that is being cut down and burned. Few trees remain standing in the picture.

The Cambodian journalist’s body was found last week in the boot of his own car. He had apparently been axed to death just days after reporting on links between the military and illegal logging there.

Oudom’s story was just the latest in a series that had shed light on the corruption and criminality that are tearing Cambodia’s forests apart for quick bucks to line powerful pockets. As the Bangkok Post reports, a military policeman has now been charged with his murder.

My lack of surprise as this grisly crime stemmed from the fact that Oudom is not alone, as I have noted in an earlier post here called ‘They kill environment journalists, don’t they?’.

It describes how journalists in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union have been intimidated, threatened, beaten or even killed for coming too close to exposing the ways powerful figures enrich themselves while harming the environment that everyone else depends on.

The extent of these threats to environment journalists makes a mockery of the 20-year old commitment by almost all nations on Earth to ensure that the public has access to adequate information about the environment and can participate in decision-making about how it is managed.

Press freedom is key to delivering that information but, too often, powerful figures in governments, the military and environmentally destructive sectors see local journalists as nuisances who can be intimidated, bought off or shut up forever.

With the internet at our fingertips there is no longer any reason for such elites to succeed in silencing the stories of their plunder and what they are prepared to do to sustain it.

What’s needed now is for journalists across the world to join the dots. Because blood spilt in – for instance — a tropical forest can often be connected now with notes deposited in a Western bank or luxury hardwoods bought in a high-street store in China or Chicago.

When a journalist dies to tell a story, it becomes a story that deserves an audience like no other. When that story is about the flows of money and natural resources that make tough men rich and put poor people in peril, it doesn’t take much effort to see that it is a story that can touch us all.

This blog post first appeared on Andy Revkin's Dot Earth blog at the New York Times website.