Environmental reporting can help protect citizens in emerging democracies
Posted by admin on 31st May 2019

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.