Friday, April 12, 2013

The Death of Mikhail Beketov and Environmental Journalism

Mikhail Beketov, was killed for reporting on environmental destruction and corruption in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. Like so many other environmental journalists he was silenced for reporting the truth. His investigative journalism earned the ire of those whom he had accused of malfeasance. A savage beating five years ago left him severely brain damaged and unable to speak, it also forced doctors to amputate one of his legs and several fingers. Prior to the attack, Beketov received numerous death threats, his car was set on fire and his dog was killed and left on his doorstep.

The 55 year old Beketov died on Tuesday of wounds attributable to the attack in 2008. He is but one of many Russian reporters slain for their journalistic efforts. Anna Politkovskaya was killed for reporting on Chechnya and Ivan Safronov met his demise due to his reporting on Russian military affairs.

Like a number of other reporters in Russia and around the world, Beketov was killed for his environmental journalism. On September 17, 2009, Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontières released a report entitled “The dangers for journalists who expose environmental issues.” The report, "highlights the indifference and even complicity of some governments and authorities that make little attempt to protect journalists who take risks to investigate attacks on the environment. The report looks at 13 cases of journalists and bloggers who have been killed, physically attacked, jailed, threatened or censored for reporting on the environment."

Being a reporter in Russia is a particularly dangerous job. Estimates of the number of Russian journalists killed or disappeared range from several dozen to hundreds. According to an online database set up by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) there have been over three hundred deaths and disappearances since 1993.

A September 2009 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) concluded that Russia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and added that it remains among the worst at solving their murders.

Recent statements by President Vladimir Putin as well as raids on human rights organizations, indicate that civil society and freedom of expression are under threat in Russia. Since Putin returned as President in 2012, the Kremlin has passed a series of restrictive laws and provisions. The New York Times reports that Russia has even begun censoring the Internet inside its borders.

In Beketov's case he was reporting on the building of a road between Moscow and St Petersburg. The construction of this road led to the destruction of a massive oak forest. Beketov accused politicians, including the Khimki's mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko, of corruption. There is even some evidence linking one of Putin's wealthy friends to the project.

Before his death Beketov reportedly said "if anything ever happens to me, look inside the Khimki administration." However, some believe the culpability goes right to the top of Russian society.  As one women explained at Beketov's funeral, "The journalist profession is the scariest – it is deadly dangerous," she told the crowd. "A government that doesn't need truth is a bandit government. They are not going to look for the killers. The killers are in the Kremlin."

The murder of yet another journalist underscores the dire need for a free press that addresses ecological issues. The importance of journalists to the cause of environmental justice cannot be overstated. Journalists are the canaries in the coal mine, they alert the wider world to environmental concerns that we may not notice otherwise.

It is critical that we defend environmental journalists with the same ardor we exhibit for the defense of the environment.  A header in the IFJ website reads, "There can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear"

Whether in Cambodia, Brazil or Russia, environmental issues do not respect national borders. Therefore, the fate of environmental journalists anywhere should be the concern of people everywhere.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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