Climate change and press freedom

Last weekend I participated in a conference in Venice, Italy, on climate change and the press. The meeting was hosted by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev under the auspices on the World Political Forum, an organization Gorbachev founded in 2003 to foster discussion on “crucial problems that affect humankind.”

Gorbachev, right, in Venice with conference participants. (CPJ)
Gorbachev, right, in Venice with conference participants. (CPJ)

The premise of this particular meeting, which brought together politicians, policy-makers, scientists and journalists, is that the media must do more to alert the world to the threat posed by climate change and mobilize action. The mood was bleak and dire. Speaker after speaker stressed that the pace of global warming appears to exceed even the most alarming predictions and the window for action may be closing. Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, the situation may be even graver. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the world comes together in the short tem to take action.

I don’t believe it’s useful for the media to play an activist role in the debate on global warming, a view echoed by the journalists in attendance. But the media can make a valuable contribution by aggressively reporting on issues relating to climate change, holding policy-makers to account for their actions and inactions, and reporting in detail about the environmental changes that already under way. Unfortunately, as I noted at the conference, many countries are actively restricting this kind of environmental coverage.

The most egregious example is Burma, which ruthlessly suppressed reporting on the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis, a policy which undoubtedly contributed to the devastating death toll. But countries ranging from Ethiopia to China have taken active measures to suppress reporting on drought, famine, and disease outbreaks, all of which scientists believe could be linked to climate change.

Gorbachev surely understands the dangers of muzzling the press in times of disaster. When the Soviet government covered up the truth about the April 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant, it sacrificed the lives and health of its own citizens to protect itself from embarrassment. The cover-up of the Chernobyl disaster was a pivotal event in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, reporting on Chernobyl’s lasting aftermath remains a dangerous assignment in Belarus under the authoritarian rule of Aleksandr Lukashenko. And in Russia today, environmental issues attract little press coverage.

In his keynote address, Gorbachev linked the excesses of global capitalism to both climate change and the current financial crisis. Gorbachev seems to crave vindication for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and today is promoting a concept he calls “global glasnost,” a system in which a strong state guides the economy and ensures political freedom. Commenting on Russia, he said, “No one in our country wants to abandon freedom of expression. … No one wants to go to jail for telling a joke. … This is the most important thing in any society–whether people can think and speak clearly.”

Gorbachev and Russian tycoon Aleksandr Lebedev recently founded a new political party in Russia to promote this vision of glasnost. Many commentators view this as odd as Gorbachev has never forcefully challenged the repressive policies of Vladimir Putin, including his dismantling of Russia’s once thriving independent media. Gorbachev is also not a popular figure among the Russian public, which associates him with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic chaos.

But at 77, Gorbachev remains a man of immense vitality and charm. At a banquet celebrated in a lavish 18th-century palazzo, Gorbachev worked the room like the old pro that he is, chatting up the guests and posing for photos. When it was my turn, I mentioned that CPJ has been working closely with Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Moscow independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, to seek justice in the murder of three of the paper’s journalists–Anna Polikovskaya, Igor Domnikov, and Yuri Shchekochikhin. Gorbachev and Lebedev are investors in Novaya Gazeta, and Gorbachev told me of his enormous respect for Muratov.

The situation for journalists in Russia is bleak–16 journalists have been murdered since 2000, and the once freewheeling broadcast media are now almost entirely under Kremlin control. Gorbachev’s political influence in Russia may be limited, but if he serves as a moderating influence on the country’s repressive leaders I certainly wish him all the very best–as do all those who cherish press freedom.