Environmental reporting can help protect citizens in emerging democracies

What happens when an illegally logged tree falls or poachers kill endangered brown bears in the forest, but there’s no journalist to report it?

That’s the situation in the Republic of Georgia, which faces challenges that include poaching, deteriorating air quality, habitat disruption from new hydropower dams, illegal logging and climate change. The effects cross national borders and affect economic and political relationships in the Caucasus and beyond.

I researched environmental journalism in the Republic of Georgia as a Fulbright Scholar there in the fall of 2018. I chose Georgia because many of its environmental and media problems are similar to those confronting other post-Soviet countries nearly 30 years after independence. As I have found in my research on mass media in other post-Soviet nations, journalists risk provoking powerful public and corporate interests when they investigate sensitive environmental issues.

But when the media don’t cover these problems, Georgians go uninformed about issues relevant to their daily lives. Eco-violators operate with impunity, and the government and Georgia’s influential private sector remain opaque to the public. At a time when government hostility to journalists is rising in many countries, Georgia illustrates how environmental damage, pollution and ill health can spread, and go unpunished, when powerful interests are unaccountable to the public.

Georgia’s habitats range from alpine peaks to river floodplains and the Black Sea coast. Giorgi Balakhadze/Wikimedia, CC BY

An unstable mediascape

Levels of press freedom, autonomy and media sustainability have fluctuated since Georgia became independent in 1991. The latest constitutional change greatly strengthened Parliament and eliminated direct election of the president, whose office is primarily ceremonial.

The governing Georgian Dream coalition has become increasingly anti-press over the past two years. Georgia’s mediascape is fairly diverse but dominated by its two largest television channels. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index ranks Georgia 60th out of 180 countries, a substantial improvement from 100th in 2013. However, it notes that media owners still often control editorial content, and threats against journalists are not uncommon.

[embedded content] As Georgia transitions from former Soviet state to independent society, it is strengthening its institutions, reaching out to Europe and keeping a wary eye on Russia.

Shallow, uninformed coverage

In addition to my own observations during 3 ½ months based in Tbilisi with visits to other cities, my findings draw on input from 16 journalists, media trainers, scientists and representatives of advocacy groups and multinational agencies whom I interviewed or who spoke to my media and society class at Caucasus University.

Source after source bemoaned what they saw as generally shallow, sparse, misleading and inaccurate coverage of environmental topics. In their view, the legacy of Soviet journalism as a willing propaganda tool of the state lingered. Tamara Chergoleishvili, director general of the magazine and news website Tabula, put it bluntly: “There is no environmental journalism… There is no professionalism.”

One major complaint was that journalists lacked knowledge about science and the environment. “If you don’t understand the issue, you can’t convey it to the public,” said Irakli Shavgulidze, chair of the governing board of the nonprofit Center for Biodiversity Conservation & Research.

Another concern was that journalists often failed to connect environmental topics with other issues such as the economy, foreign relations, energy and health. Sophie Tchitchinadze, a United Nations Development Programme communications analyst and former journalist, said the Georgian media was just starting to view itself as “an essential part of economic development and equally important to social issues.”

Tourists swim and sunbathe in the Black Sea resort town of Batumi. Georgia’s government has attracted top foreign investors to build hotels and develop tourist sites. AP Photo/Maria Danilova, File

Transparent in principle, not in practice

Lack of access to information was also a common complaint, despite transparency laws entitling the public and press to government documents.