Hot tips for climate reporting: hard-hitting stories from Asia

Advice on producing hard-hitting stories in Asia a region at best opaque and at worst dangerous — from five environmental journalists.

Illustration by Georgia Scott

Asia is one of the most hostile regions in the world for environmental reporting. In shining a light on poor governance, corruption and non-transparency, reporters have been detained, harassed, sued, and murdered. In 2015, press watchdog Reporters Without Borders detailed how 90% of murders of environmental journalists from 2010 to 2015 have taken place in Asia. Southeast Asia, in particular, was the deadliest.

Six years on, the region has only sunk further in measures of press freedoms. “I’ve been a journalist under three presidents now,” says Leilani Chavez, a Philippines-based writer at Mongabay, an environmental news site. “The current reporting climate is by far, the most challenging.”

It’s not just the Philippines: in 2019, Chavez’s colleague, Mongabay editor Philip Jacobson, was detained in Indonesia over an alleged visa violation. Jacobson, whose work has scrutinized president Joko Widodo’s track record on environmental issues, and linked deforestation in the Borneo to one of the country’s largest paper producers, reveals in this piece how he tracked down sources key to his story.

Even in countries like Singapore where physical safety is less of an issue, the lack of a Freedom of Information Act and publicly-available data can stunt a good investigation. The Straits Times’ correspondent Audrey Tan recounts how this pushed her to get creative with her reporting on Singapore’s missing pink dolphins, seeking out other sources more willing to disclose information.

In the next decades, Asia will continue to face its own climate conundrum: it must not only adapt to global warming largely caused by advanced economies, who continue to be major emitters, but also alter its own development strategies and shift away from deforestation, dirty energy sources, and natural resource extraction.

As journalists document this first draft of a region’s climate journey, they will be aided by technology and satellite data, shares Eco-Business editor Robin Hicks. But useful as numbers may be, they must be interpreted with caution, says Joydeep Gupta, director at The Third Pole, a platform for water and climate news in Asia. If there’s one thing the lack of transparency in this region makes clear, it’s that good old sourcing is key.

Seek multiple voices to get the full picture

I always try to seek multiple voices in my stories, especially for those that people don’t want journalists to tell. There is always more than one source who can give you an idea of what is going on, even if they may not be able to give the full picture.

I remember covering the case of the missing pink dolphins in Singapore. When Underwater World Singapore shut, it wasn’t clear if the company was going to send all its marine mammals — including a pink dolphin which had skin cancer — to other facilities. The company of course insisted on using the word “all” when replying to media queries about the animals’ relocation, but I found that hard to believe. So I started asking around.

The authority in charge of issuing the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permits at that time, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, refused to give out information on how many permits they issued, citing confidentiality. So, I emailed CITES directly, querying them on the number of permits issued. They later told me when their annual report will be published, so I set an alarm on my phone to access that information when available. Based on that report, I later found out that two of the dolphins never left Singapore.

Being a journalist in this digital era also means that there are a lot more resources at our fingertips: satellite data, multiple databases like those from the World Resources Institute and so on, which can give you an idea of forest fires, illegal fishing fleets and more.

Ideally, covering environmental issues requires some ground-truthing. When it comes to such matters in Singapore, it’s easy for me to do so. But especially now during the pandemic, when travel is off the cards, I need to rely a lot more on my network of contacts when pursuing regional or international pieces. This I feel illustrates the need for journalists to remain trustworthy getting facts straight, not publishing hearsay etc so people are willing to talk to you.

Audrey Tan is a science and environment correspondent for The Straits Times in Singapore.

Track down human sources for investigative work

As journalists we gather information in a variety of ways, but for a lot of the investigative reporting we do, it’s important to track down human sources who will provide the information we need. 

A few years ago, for example, Indonesia’s biggest pulp and paper conglomerate, Sinarmas, which had made high-profile commitments to stop cutting down rainforest, was linked to a company doing just that in western Borneo, when The Associated Press reported that this company’s shareholders were none other than a pair of junior Sinarmas employees. The two men seemed to be serving as stand-ins for Sinarmas itself, but the conglomerate denied that, insisting that the men had formed the company themselves, without management knowing.

We wanted to dig a little deeper, so we obtained the company’s registry profile, which is publicly available on a database maintained by the Indonesian government, and found several other individuals who apparently also worked for Sinarmas listed as board members. After a few days spent working the phones, we managed to speak directly with two of these people.

Both said the company really belonged to Sinarmas and that their bosses had used their names on company papers. One went into quite a bit of detail about how the system worked, saying no one at Sinarmas had asked his permission to use his name on the company, they just went ahead and did it without asking him, and he only realized what was happening when the legal team at his skyscraper office in Jakarta started bringing him papers to sign for things like heavy equipment rentals.

Not long after we published the piece, the Forest Stewardship Council, a certification body for sustainable wood, declined to give Sinarmas its stamp of approval, which presumably had something to do with our reporting.

Philip Jacobson is an editor for non-profit environmental news site Mongabay.

Keep your contacts close

Southeast Asia in general is a really difficult place to be an environmental journalist. That’s why it makes it even more important how good your sources are. Sources are absolute gold in an age of disinformation and governments are clamping down on journalists and the media, and being really protective over data.

The best stories we put out have always come from tip-offs. I’ve got decent stories just by following up with contacts asking how they’re doing and if they’ve got any news. With COVID-19, it’s been more difficult as there aren’t physical events where you can go around talking to people and getting business cards and generating leads for stories anymore. But journalists can rely on data that is publicly available.

In Asia, satellite-based data has been absolutely gold and it’s getting better. There’s Global Forest Watch for deforestation, IQAir for air pollution, and SkyTruth, which we used to track bilge dumping last year. Southeast Asia is the world’s bilge dumping hotspot, where ships illegally discharge their waste oil into the water. For this story, someone actually got in touch with me via LinkedIn and showed me some satellite images where you could see black lines coming off the back of ships. That was how it originated, so even with other data sources available, it’s important to keep your contacts close. Sources are literally our lifeblood as a journalist. You can never have too many good ones.

For business news, net-zero targets are hot right now, with companies trying to ride this wave of good publicity. But their targets can be pretty thin, and not science-based, and not aligned with the Paris Agreement… so I usually do report these stories, but I also report what they leave out: details on how exactly they’ll get to net zero, interim targets, non-disclosure, weak spots and so on. I’m not an expert, so I’d go to an NGO or experts in net-zero and decarbonization and ask for comments. It’s just a journalism thing, being balanced in your coverage.

Robin Hicks is the deputy editor of Eco-Business, a Singapore-based news site.

Follow the data; numbers don’t lie

I’ve been a journalist under three presidents now and the current reporting climate is by far, the most challenging in the Philippines. Under the current environment, I first focus on collecting data and numbers because records tend to be limited, hard to access, and most often, missing. Looking at environmental issues through the lens of other sectors helps expand my research base too, as well as depend on sources I’ve grown with over the years. In the Philippines, we have a saying: If you combine small coins, you’ll have big bills. Data works the same way; tiny bits of information, strategically collected and pieced together could produce big revelations: from incidences of corruption to systematic problems to political shenanigans. Numbers don’t lie; and if they do, it’s easy to spot discrepancies.

Journalism is public trust. In the Philippines, the goal is to report issues in a relatable manner — close to the stomach, we say. Seasoned editors will ask and it’s good to be reminded: What’s the point of this story? Why should this be written and published? Issues that stretch on for decades are always the toughest, yet, they are also the most rewarding. When working on stories like this, I always ask myself: What will I add to further the discourse?

In covering an issue about a citizen barricade led by Indigenous peoples to block a mining site operating with an expired permit, for example, I decided to look beyond death tallies and harassment accounts. Instead, I analyzed case files, letter exchanges, ordinances, mining permits, press releases and assessed the existing mining law to provide a bigger picture: the renewal process will set a precedent that will reverberate for decades. Making sense of various data from numerous sources is a challenge and in developing countries like the Philippines, it can get confusing. But I have to constantly remind myself that, most often, the confusion is the story.

Leilani Chavez is a Philippines-based journalist for non-profit environmental news site Mongabay.

Let the facts speak for themselves

The first way to get information is through Right To Information laws. If you don’t have that, government departments in countries like India and Pakistan often have a lot of data on their website, which they tend not to publicize. So it basically becomes a matter of knowing how to do a good web search. Other than that, the old-fashioned way involves having a source in that department, or talking to people affected who might also have statistics and information, like trade associations or environmental and human rights lawyers.

Building sources is a very personal thing, but one thing that’s recently happened in India is the emergence of large WhatsApp groups with hundreds of journalists in it. So everyone is constantly asking each other for information, contacts and so on, which really helps.

A note about environmental data though, be very, very careful about the numbers. You have to double-check and triple-check. Environmental journalists usually get statistics from NGOs, and should always cross-check that with other sources like a relevant government agency, or publicly-available satellite data. The same goes for government statistics, because not all governments report data honestly.

Recently, The Third Pole did an investigative story on polluted water coming from a sugar mill. A reporter can go there, see that the water is dirty, and know the sugar mill is not treating the wastewater properly. He or she can take a picture of that, talk to a couple of villagers, and do a story. But what we did was take samples of the water before getting an independent testing laboratory to process it.

When we got the test results, we sent them to the sugar mill company and asked, What do you have to say? We published the photographs, the interviews with the villagers, the test results, and comments from the company and pollution control board officials. Letting the facts speak for themselves is much more effective than putting in a lot of adjectives into a feature.

Joydeep Gupta is South Asia director of The Third Pole, a platform for water and climate news in Asia.