The killing of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon is the latest in a worrying trend of journalists targeted for reporting on environmental abuses
When British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira were murdered in early June in the Amazon, it sent shockwaves throughout Brazil and the rest of the world. Although Brazil’s vice-president claimed that Phillips’s death was “collateral damage” in an attack on his travelling partner, the deaths mark a worrying new addition to the 30 or so journalists killed over the last decade for reporting on environmental matters. Phillips and Pereira were murdered by locally hired assassins, three of whom have since been apprehended. It is believed that Pereira had evidence of their illegal fishing trips in the area.
When a western environmental journalist like Dom Phillips is killed, it tends to make headline news. Part of the reason is the disbelief that people in a developing country would be audacious enough to commit the crime to do due to the blowback it causes. Even the vice-president’s comment dismissed the notion that Phillips could have been deliberately targeted; the implication of“collateral damage was a kind of premise of “we’ll kill our own people but not westerners”.
Throughout poorer parts of the world in Asia and South America, local environmental journalists are being killed for exposing wealthy businessmen and politicians intent on destroying their natural environment for profit and often in the face of international law. The fear is, that after more such killings with impunity, journalists will no longer be willing to put their lives on the line for their job. If that happens, the environment and planet will reap the cost.
A gang, widely reported to consist of Indian police, burst into the office of Jagendra Singh on 1 June 2015, doused him with petrol, and set him alight. Before his death, the independent journalist posted on social media: “Politicians, thugs, and police, all are after me. Writing the truth is weighing heavily on my life.” The police said that he had killed himself.
The veteran journalist had been investigating land grabs and the alleged illegal extraction of sand, which is widely used in global construction, from the Garra River. The practice – often run in India in conjunction with the organised crime – is increasingly prohibited throughout the world due to erosion, floods and other environmental concerns. Around 50 billion tonnes of sand are mined annually worldwide to make concrete.
Since Singh’s death, three other Indian journalists have been killed while investigating sand-mining. Karun Misra was shot in February 2016 (the purported killers were apprehended), and Sandeep Sharma was run over by a dump truck while riding his motorbike on a country road in March 2018. In June 2020, Shubham Mani Tripathi, a reporter for the Hindi-language Kampu Mail daily in Uttar Pradesh state was shot six times. No convictions have been made in any of these cases.
According to multiple news reports, radio reporter Maria Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo was shot on 8 October 2017, when reporting on clashes between indigenous community members and riot police in the department of Cauca in south-western Colombia. A reporter for an indigenous community radio station, Renacer Kokonuko 90.7 FM, Vásquez was taken to a hospital in Popayán, the capital of Cauca, where she later died from her injuries.
Vásquez was both participating in and reporting on a protest organised by members of the Kokonuko indigenous community against a private company's encroachment on land they viewed as ancestral. A roadblock set up by community members was met by riot police. Around 40 indigenous civilians were injured in the clashes, Isneldo Avirama, the community’s governor, told the Bogota-based press freedom organization Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP).
There is some confusion as to who was responsible for Vásquez’s death, as she was injured by a homemade weapon. José Abelardo Liz, a fellow community reporter also supporting indigenous rights in Colombia, was shot and killed soon after while covering a protest against land privatization in the town of Corinto. As with Vásquez’s murder, the killers have not been apprehended.
Indonesian reporter Muhammad Yusuf died while in detention on 10 June 2018 on a charge of defaming a local palm oil production company in South Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo.
Yusuf had been reporting on allegedly illegal land seizures linked to the activities of MSAM, a company that operates a huge oil-palm plantation in the province; he had written 23 articles for two news websites, Kemajuan Rakyat and Berantas News. He was arrested nine weeks before his eventual death, on 5 April as he was about to fly to Jakarta to meet with the country’s National Commission on Human Rights.
He was taken from prison to a hospital in Kotabaru, suffering from chest pains, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. He died soon after in the hospital as a result of a heart attack. Yusuf’s wife, Arvaidah, was denied access to see his body in the morgue and to see the results of the autopsy.
She has since filed a complaint against the police and district attorney, who were both responsible for Yusuf’s detention. The authorities’ impartiality had been questioned in the case as South Kalimantan’s governor is the uncle of the businessman who owns MSAM. The National Commission on Human Rights has since opened an investigation into Yusuf’s death.
Li Xiang, a Chinese journalist for Luoyang TV who investigated a food safety scandal, was murdered in September 2011 in Henan province. He was stabbed several times, and his laptop was missing; Chinese police stated the killing was a result of a likely robbery. However, the New York-based press watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), suspected otherwise and called on the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough inquiry.
Other journalists linked Li’s death to his reports on the illegal recycling of waste oil into cooking oil. The resulting national outrage resulted in the police recovering 100 tonnes of the carcinogenic oil – called "gutter oil" – that had been passed off as cooking oil. They subsequently arrested 32 people for selling it. Two men were subsequently arrested for Li's death. There have been no reports, however, the charges were for anything other than a robbery.
Pablo Isabel Hernández was the director of a radio station known as Radio Tenan, the Indigenous Voice of the Lencas in Honduras. He was shot and killed on a dirt road in January this year as he headed to a local church with his father and brothers.
He was active in several environmental causes and championed indigenous education and environmental projects. His death followed the killing of fellow Lenca activist Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante. Both belonged to the same indigenous community as Berta Cáceres, the prize-winning environmental and indigenous rights defender murdered in 2016 when gunmen burst into her house and killed her in her bedroom.
The Lencas are the largest indigenous group in Honduras with a population of 450,000. They use their communal land for the cultivation of crops that they export. Their opposition to the Agua Zarca dam project, which was to be built on the Gualcarque River, was a rallying point for their activism. The river not only provides water for the Lencas, but is also sacred to them.
Written By: Olivium staff.