Newspapers and radio and television channels do of course continue to highlight such issues. But more often than not, the focus is on the outcome (child killed and another loses limbs because of toxic waste at the rubbish heap they were playing in) or event (building, bridge or road being built that will cause environmental damage). The ongoing process of environmental destruction rarely gets the same attention.
An ongoing system of trainings for journalists is obviously also essential. Non-government organisations like IUCN, Panos, WWF, the Pakistan Press Foundation, and educational institutions like Peshawar University with its forward-looking media and communications department do conduct or facilitate such trainings. Most journalists who have participated in such trainings tend to eventually move on to other exciting and glamorous areas like politics or crime. One reporter who has deliberately resisted this trend is the unassuming Bhagwandas, now a senior reporter the daily Dawn in Karachi who has been on the environment, development and related beats for over two decades now.
I first encountered Bhagwan in 1991 as part of a group of journalists that Omar Asghar Khan and his Sungi Development Foundation had invited to Haripur in the NWFP to focus on the damage caused by the timber mafia's widescale logging and subsequent land erosion. The trip included field visits and interviews with locals as well as a workshop to analyse and discuss the issues involved. We were also later together at Ghazi-Barotha downstream from the Tarbela Dam where a proposed barrage threatened to drown ancestral graveyards. Omar was involved in organising this trip too, in collaboration with Saneeya at IUCN. The resulting media attention forced the planners to (slightly) modify the original plan to incorporate at least some local concerns. Such trips highlight the co-dependence of environmental journalists and non-governmental organisations. It's a mutually beneficial relationship—the NGOs need the exposure that their journalist partners bring, and the journalists need the information and data. The media trainings are an additional bonus.
One of Bhagwan's early successes was in 1990, when his reporting contributing to saving the Kirthar National Park, home of rare and endangered Sindh Ibex for whose protection it was declared a national park. The government had started work on the Indus Highway connecting Karachi with Peshawar, a portion of which was to pass through the Park. The vehicular traffic would have destroyed the area's sensitive ecology and disrupted wildlife, besides giving easy access to poachers, recalls Bhagwan.
I broke the news and pursued it till the issue ended. Initially nothing moved, but eventually it gained momentum. First the Japanese government suspended their funding for the project and eventually the highway was re-routed to skirt the park, and it was saved. The population of Sindh Ibex which was small at that time, has also reached at a stable level over the years.
Bhagwan was further rewarded by a certificate presented to him by World Wide Fund (WWF) International President, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, during a visit to Pakistan shortly afterwards.
Pakistan's environmental crusaders got a huge uplift after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio in 1992 which stated that 'the only way to have long term economic progress is to link it with environmental protection'. The Summit led to governments, including Pakistan, making certain commitments regarding environmental protection acts and quality standards. Saneeya, of course, was at Rio for the Summit. All the discourse about the environment contributed to the launch, on World Environment Day, June 5, 1992 of the Green Press Forum, spearheaded by Zaffarullah Khan, then bureau chief of The Frontier Post, Islamabad. Other journalists associated with the Green Press have included Mudassir Rizvi, Tracey Wagner-Rizvi, Nadeem Iqbal, Nasir Iqbal, Faraz Hashmi, Masroor Gilani, Mazhar Zaidi and Zaigham Khan from various English language publications and Abrar Mustafa and Irfan Dar from the Urdu media. 'Green journalism' has more adherents among the English language media which tends to have a more sophisticated approach, but environment is something that affects everyone and the local language media (particularly the Sindh press and more recently, the new independent television channels) have been vocal in taking on issues that affect their constituents, like water logging and salinity, problems facing fisherfolk due to pollution and the erosion of the mangroves, or toxic waste dumping.
Environment became a proper 'beat' in the 1990s after environment protection agencies (EPAs) were set up in all four provinces, headed by a federal environment protection agency in Islamabad. The government started to involve the media, placing advertisements in newspapers and on television, and giving regular briefings to journalists in order to disseminate information and awareness about the National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS)13 that were established in 1993 (after the Earth Summit), and the new environment impact examinations and assessments that were being made mandatory before any new industry or development complex could be set up. Asif Shuja Khan, Director General EPA, believes that the media's involvement and support was 'crucial' in the unanimous passage of the Environment Protection Act 1993 as a Bill in 1997 by the National Parliament and the Upper House despite opposition from the industrialists. The Agency continues to involve 'green journalists' at EIA public hearings and through workshops at the provincial and federal levels.
However, the political chaos of the past few years and imperatives like 'security' have, as Khan puts it, 'overshadowed the environment'. The Green Press Forum also seems to have become a casualty to this neglect, as the last time its website was updated was in the year 2000. Most of the pioneering journalists involved in the initiative have moved on to areas like development, governance, civic education. As one of them put it, 'You don't get promotions for environmental journalism, but for political journalism.' Given this reality, there are few committed 'environmental journalists' in Pakistan. All too often, it is a handful of individuals like Isa Daudpota who take on an environmental issue and doggedly keep it in the limelight. The good news is that environmental journalism has moved out of the box it occupied during the 1990s, and now permeates several issues ranging from development, governance, globalisation and civic rights and education to politics, economy and health.
Sometimes, these individuals are not journalists, but lawyers or activists who take on causes and rope journalists in, like Haris Gazdar at the Collective for Social Science Research. Toxic dumping in the SITE area had resulted in one child's death, the amputation of another child's limbs, and severe burns to other children in early 2006. Some CSSR workers came across the case and put together a report on the issue. They got advocate Faisal Siddiqi to take on the children's case pro bono, and actively pushed journalists to cover the issue. After two years of litigation the families won the case—a first in Pakistan's environmental history. The case highlighted the impact of the media which 'created a narrative of public importance', as Faisal put it.
The judges knew about it which gave us a receptive ground to plead the case. The narrative continued to be constantly developed and remained in the public eye. There was aggressive moral shaming. Last but not least, the case mobilised the people — victims, families, supporters were all engaged in the struggle and formed an NGO to take the matter forward.
The case also resulted in getting the factory closed down, compensation to the victims' families, and the stoppage of toxic dumping in the area.
Relatively new buzz words related to the environment over the last few years have cropped up—disaster management and climate change, catalysed by the South-East Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the earthquake that devastated Kashmir and northern Pakistan in 2005 (followed a couple of months later by Hurricane Katrina on south-eastern USA). The protective role of trees on mountain sides and of mangroves along the coast that journalists and NGOs have been shouting about for years, suddenly took on a new importance in the eyes of policy makers (we hope).
Mountain areas have long been endangered by skewed 'development' projects, widespread logging and erosion. In 1998, Kunda Dixit, who set up Panos South Asia in Kathmandu, commissioned a series of reports from for 'Tough Terrain: Media Reports on Mountain Issues'.14 The Pakistan contribution was 'Landsliding Away', a chapter in which Nadeem Iqbal and I focused on the problems caused by development work that ignores the fragile ecology of mountains. Poorly designed, badly constructed mountain roads resulted in landslides in 1998 destroying the homes of over 2,000 people in eight villages of Hazara. The villain of the piece, ironically, was a farm-to-market road connecting Balakot to Hangaree, 'one of the several Asian Development Bank funded projects meant to make life better for rural dwellers. But mismanagement and insensitivity to environment and people has had the opposite effect'.
Nadeem later did a follow up for Newsline's July 1999 issue as a result of which the ADB sent an environment expert to investigate the issue. He found that Nadeem had mentioned only three roads, while the environment laws were violated in nine other roads. Later, the Environment Protection Agency, NWFP, was forced to carry out an environment impact assessment of the ADB funded road-to-market project. Tragically, the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir wiped out both Balokot and the road which connected it to Hangaree.
The devastation and loss of lives might have been mitigated had environmentally-friendly policies been followed in the area. Saneeya, Ameneh and Zulekha, and of course Omar, watching the devastation from another world, must have felt the pain.
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