German police officers carry a climate change activist after removing her glued hand from a street during rush hour in Cologne, Germany, on February 3, 2023. Journalists covering climate issues in Europe face growing threats. (Reuters/Jana Rodenbusch)

‘I am challenged at the court for simply doing my job’: Journalists covering climate issues in Europe face growing threats

Skyrocketing temperatures and catastrophic flooding have hammered home the realities of climate change in Europe, making environmental coverage one of the continent’s most important beats. It’s also an increasingly dangerous one as journalists face legal and physical harassment for reporting on polluters, amid other concerns. Of course, Europe isn’t the only place where journalists find themselves under threat for covering the environment; British journalist Dom Phillips was murdered in the Brazilian Amazon in one of the most high-profile killings of last year.

To better understand the challenges they face, CPJ interviewed three European journalists who experienced physical violence, lawsuits, and backlash while reporting on these issues. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Bogdana Lazarova, reporter for Bulgaria’s public broadcaster BNT

In June 2022, a group of men threw stones at Lazarova and her crew in a Serbian village near the Bulgarian border as they documented pollution allegedly caused by a mining company. The attack continued even when they identified themselves as journalists and showed their filming permits.

Bogdana Lazarova, a reporter for Bulgaria’s public broadcaster BNT (Photo: Lazarova)

How has the investigation into the attack on you and your crew progressed?

Lazarova: The investigation is still ongoing six months after the attack. We all have testified as victims, but I am not aware of any charges being made yet. The Bulgarian prosecutor’s office has also opened a parallel criminal proceeding for attempted murder. It is crucial that the Serbian prosecutor’s office completes the investigation and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Otherwise, journalists will be vulnerable to attacks with impunity.

Do you think your case highlights the growing risk of violence faced by journalists reporting on environmental issues?

I have not had similar experiences, but the attack left me feeling fear when I returned to Serbia two days later to continue filming. Although I had the necessary permits, I was still cautious. Luckily, I have not experienced any similar attack, but in one earlier case, when we were filming pollution in Bulgaria with highly toxic pesticides, a local mayor warned people about us and filmed our reporting work with a drone the whole time.

What advice would you give to journalists reporting on environmental issues in potentially dangerous areas?

Journalists should be prepared for the risks they may face in such areas and take measures to ensure their safety. I always inform my TV management of my location and activities while on location, so I have their support in case of an emergency. I also maintain contact with local residents as they have valuable information and are the people whose interests the media is protecting. Environmental pollution and climate disasters can directly impact journalists’ health as well, so journalists must take precautions to protect themselves.

What should media outlets do to protect journalists covering environmental issues?

Media organizations should monitor cases of attacks on journalists, including those covering environmental issues, and work to ensure fair and transparent investigations and court processes. Investigative journalists, who face a high risk of attack, should receive special protection. Media organizations could also advocate for the European Parliament to harmonize legislation to better protect journalists in all European Union member states.

CPJ emailed the Serbian prosecutor’s office in Belgrade and the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office in Sofia for comment on her case but did not receive an immediate reply.

Grégoire Souchay, freelance journalist in France for Reporterre, a privately owned media outlet focused on environmental and ecological issues

In November 2021, Souchay covered a protest led by environmental activists near Rodez, in southern France. In June 2022, authorities filed criminal charges against him and 28 activists, accusing him of conspiring to steal and degrade private property. He denied the charges. If convicted, Souchay could face a maximum seven-year prison sentence and fine of 100,000 euros (US$107,000).

Grégoire Souchay, a journalist in France for media outlet Reporterre (Photo: Lato Sensu Productions)

What did you do on November 10, 2021? Why were charges pressed against you?

Souchay: On that day, I was covering a protest by Faucheurs Volontaires, a group of environmental activists, who entered a warehouse belonging to RAGT Semences, a local seed company, in search of genetically modified seeds that are resistant to pesticides. During this act of civil disobedience, more than 60 activists entered the warehouse and destroyed bags of seeds. I was there as a reporter, fulfilling my job to accompany the activists and document their protest, along with other journalists, photographers, and videographers from various media outlets. However, I am the only journalist facing charges, after the company filed a criminal complaint.

Why are the authorities prosecuting you along with the activists? Were you identified as a journalist?

I did enter the warehouse with the activists, as did all the other journalists. However, I was there solely as a reporter and the charges against me are unfounded. I was holding my notebook and a pen, taking photos, and recording interviews with my mobile phone so it could have been clear to anyone that I was there as a reporter. Most of the activists were wearing white uniforms, while the journalists were not. When I left the site, I showed my press card to the security guard when they asked for my ID.

I was shocked when, three months later, police summoned me for questioning based on the company’s criminal complaint. I informed the police that I was a journalist covering the protest. I explained that my article about the protest was published two days after the protest, but the prosecution disregarded my status as a journalist and treats my case with the other activists. With my lawyers, I am now requesting the prosecution to drop the charges and providing evidence of my journalistic status and supporting testimonies from other journalists present at the protest.

What impact does this case have on your work as a journalist?

As a journalist reporting on local agriculture and local affairs, my involvement in a criminal proceeding initiated by a major local company has made my work more challenging and strained my relationships with local sources, who might be more hesitant speaking with me because of this case. Furthermore, I am unable to cover legal cases in my region, including my own case and that of environmental activists, due to potential conflict of interest. My newspaper covers my legal fees, but this diverts valuable resources away from actual journalism and investigative reporting. I have had to spend half of my December working time preparing for my defense instead of reporting. This process, even if I am ultimately exonerated, still restricts my journalistic freedoms and activities, and could discourage other journalists from covering environmental issues and activism.

Do you think your case reflects increasing challenges faced by journalists covering the environment?

The criminalization of journalists covering environmental activism is a growing trend in France and Europe, with journalists facing administrative fines, and civil and criminal proceedings. In many cases just like mine, the legal proceeding has nothing to do with what I wrote. I am challenged at the court for simply doing my job, being close to the events, and documenting what happened.

There is also a growing number of SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) cases, with big companies instrumentalizing the justice system against journalists. It’s crucial for the journalistic community and press freedom groups to respond and counter the use of SLAPP cases. If this trend continues, it will discourage journalists from covering environmental issues. With the climate crisis intensifying and political response weak, environmental activism is becoming more militant and confrontational, exposing journalists to increased risks. We must put an end to these practices for the future of press freedom and the public’s right to know.

[Editor’s note: In emails received after publication, Nicolas Rigot-Muller, the public prosecutor in Rodez, told CPJ that the decision to prosecute Souchay “was not an attempt to limit the freedom of the press,” and that investigators only learned he was a reporter after he was summoned for questioning. He said that the case would be dismissed if prosecutors confirmed Souchay’s “journalistic mission.” Fabrice Raynal, communications officer for RAGT Semences, told CPJ that the investigation was initiated by the police, not the company, which was not aware that the journalist was one of the defendants.]

Marco Brás dos Santos, freelance journalist in Germany primarily for Kreuzer Leipzig, a privately owned online magazine

Brás dos Santos was fined 150 euros (US$160) by a German court in December for trespassing. MIBRAG, a German energy company, filed trespassing charges against him, three other journalists, and several activists following a November 2019 climate protest at an opencast mine in Saxony, an eastern German state. The three other journalists paid the fine; Brás dos Santos was the only journalist to dispute the charge in court.

Marco Brás dos Santos, a freelance journalist in Germany primarily working for Kreuzer Leipzig (Photo: Brás dos Santos)

Why did the company bring charges against you?

Brás dos Santos: The company filed a criminal complaint against me for being on their private property while covering a climate protest. They did this even though I was wearing a press vest and easily distinguishable from the protesters in white overalls. The company also went after other journalists and photographers at the scene. It was clear to everyone, including the police and the court, that we were journalists.

Why did the authorities treat your case similarly to the activists?

The police told me from the start that they couldn’t handle my case differently from the activists because of the complaint against me. The judge said the same thing during the hearing, recognizing that my case was different because I’m a journalist, but still saying that the law doesn’t allow for a different treatment. So, the judge gave me the minimum fine possible. I think it’s a SLAPP lawsuit and it’s against the German constitution’s protection of press freedom. It’s not right for journalists to be taken to court and punished for doing their jobs. The authorities should treat journalists differently and not let big companies criminalize reporting. I’ve filed an appeal and I’m not giving up.

How much do you think your case is characteristic of the challenges journalists covering environmental issues are facing?

Lawsuits like the one I faced are becoming more common for journalists covering climate issues. As journalists, it’s our job to be ready for these kinds of situations and give them the attention they deserve. We need to report on these lawsuits, let people know what the EU is doing to fight them, and use legal means to protect ourselves if we face them. We also have to speak out and look for legal solutions, like the ones proposed by the EU.

CPJ emailed the press department of MIBRAG for comment on his case but did not receive an immediate reply.