“At a time when deniers of climate change call it fake news, climate activists call for more rigorous action, and high-level policymakers battle over “who pays,” it is journalists who try to make sense of it all. Their difficult mission is instrumental in our understanding of climate change and its effect on development.
“Reporting on the climate debates and (lack of) action taken by countries, however, is only one of the ways journalists contribute to putting the topic on the world’s agenda. There are many more reasons why we should support — or at the very least embrace — independent journalists who write about the climate and development,” writes Merit Hindriks in an Op-Ed published on the Hivos website.
Journalists from Malawi, Nepal, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe met at COP24 and talked about their experiences and challenges reporting on climate change issues in their countries.
Being the voice of the voiceless
“90% of people don’t have access to electricity in my country” explained James Chavula, a journalist from Malawi. The media landscape there is “so small and so concentrated in cities that they (the journalists) are missing the voices of rural area.” So the young journalist made it his mission to “give the mic to the people we usually don’t listen to, the people whose stories are usually untold.”
James was part of the seven winners of the Voices of a Brighter Future competition, an initiative of UN-OHRLLS which rewarded the best quality reporting about renewable energy and energy access issues. His piece on the effects of indoor pollution from traditional cooking habits on women and children shook things up in Malawi to the point of being discussed in parliament.
Data counts, but stories tell
“Decisions about climate and development ambitions and actions are usually taken by (inter)national governing bodies. These decisions direct affect people’s lives, yet they are often based on numbers, while people’s real concerns are overlooked or dismissed. I do believe policy makers care about the well-being of citizens, but they often lack the ability to put the challenges we face on a human scale.
“Journalists are well positioned to bridge this gap. They report on the threats climate change poses to real individuals and their livelihoods. They tell inspiring stories about how climate-related development solutions, like access to renewable energy, have improved peoples’ health or empowered women entrepreneurs. And they shed light on innovative initiatives and technologies that help protect the environment. Above all, journalists can enhance the two-way communication between policy-makers and citizens.” writes Merit Hindriks.
Hivos supports independent journalists like James to become critical investigators and storytellers of the real impact that climate change, climate actions, and development solutions have on real people by organizing fellowships for journalists to better understand the energy landscape in their countries.
Coming from Zimbabwe, one of the top African coal producers, Watmore Makokoba explained that he “was always eager to report on the environment,” and the Hivos training was a real “eye-opener” for him. His story, The untold tragedies of coal mining in Zimbabwe won the “Best Renewable Energy Story’’ in the Environmental Reporter Awards 2018.
Influencing the public debate
We can’t stress enough about the importance of free press and independent journalism. It’s one of the pillars of democracy, and the tasks of journalists are even greater in rural countries, where access to information is minimal.
“Journalists are the voice of the voiceless, they play a key role in influencing public debate and influencing public opinion,” said Sahaj Man Shrestha, a media consultant and TV journalist from Nepal.
“Journalists, though independent, are never impartial. They can use their position to steer the debate, enhance transparency and demand accountability. A good report on taxpayer money being invested in extracting fossil fuels may motivate citizens to demand their government invest in renewable energy instead. And in any case, the reporting forces the government to explain its choices and take responsibility for the consequences. Without oversight by dedicated journalists, policy makers are free to disclose only the information they want. And even if they are transparent, the information they provide is often not clear to the average person.
“With the choices they make, journalists can put topics on the public and political agenda. For example, the number of articles about climate change and renewable energy has increased significantly in the last ten years. This has boosted the pressure on governments, international institutions and businesses to invest in climate action and the energy transition. It has also contributed to the public’s acceptance of these investments and has even prompted people to buy solar panels for their houses (see article ‘Media effects on solar panel installations across 20 states’),” writes Merit Hindriks.
Reporting on climate change from Malawi, Zimbabwe, or Nepal doesn’t come without difficulties. In Zimbabwe for instance, getting information from the officials is quite complicated, explained Watmore. But that is not the only challenge the young journalist experienced. “When you go to a mine, which is owned by the government, you can of course talk to people and you can usually get the information that you want, but as soon as the authorities learned that a journalist is investigating on a story, people from the community receive threats. Then they might not be willing to say out loud what they think.”
In Malawi, one of the main problems faced by journalists is with the editors. “It’s not easy to sell a story on energy,” explains James. “Energy is not a sexy topic and editors don’t know about climate change and energy poverty.”
Hivos already supports independent media in many developing countries, and since 2016 the organization has been working with journalists in its climate and energy programs. For James, it’s not only journalists who should be trained about climate change, but also editors.