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Inside Story: Journalists Team Up To Continue Colleagues’ Work Exposing Mining Risks
The nonprofit journalist network Forbidden Stories makes it its mission to continue and publish the work of other journalists facing threats, prison or murder. A particularly outstanding example is "The Green Blood Project," an effort to expose the human rights violations and environmental risks posed by the mining industry around the world. A collaboration between 15 different media partners globally, the project finished the reporting begun by journalists who lost their lives reporting on the mining industry and focuses on three mining giants in Tanzania, Guatemala and India.
The Green Blood Project won third place in the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting (Large Newsroom or Circulation) in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2020 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges said of the project, “The bold investigation reminds us that exposing and holding the powerful accountable can be a costly affair in some parts of the world and freedom of the press isn't to be taken for granted, and yet seeking the truth and reporting it is at the heart of journalism.”
|Journalists from The Green Blood Project meeting for the first time in Paris on Jan. 14, 2019. Photo: Forbidden Stories. Click to enlarge.|
SEJournal Online recently caught up with Cécile Schilis-Gallego, who was part of the project’s award-winning team, along with Arthur Bouvart, Paloma Dupont de Dinechin, Jules Giraudat, Marion Guégan, Laurent Richard and Audrey Travère. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story ideas?
Cécile Schilis-Gallego: We looked into what were the main causes of danger for reporters around the world and soon realized that many of the most dangerous stories focused on environment-related topics like mining. Very early in our research we came across this figure of 40 reporters who had died between 2005 and September 2016 because of their environmental reporting. We then started looking for reporters who were facing threats or imprisonment because of such reporting.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Schilis-Gallego: One of the challenges was to document the contamination. In Guatemala, the fishermen were complaining that a red slick had appeared in the nearby lake, which they attributed to the ferronickel mine in the area. When we got involved in the story, it was months after and the lake seemed clear. What we ended up doing was collecting all the studies that had been done on the lake after the incident. We also gathered photos and videos taken at the time. We submitted all that material to experts in order to have a second opinion. We also tested for other types of pollution, like air pollution, in the area. Another significant obstacle was that people who suffered from the mining activity were oftentimes reluctant to talk. Whether it be in India, Tanzania or Guatemala, there was an omertà (or code of silence) that made our work difficult.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?
Schilis-Gallego: Environmental reporting is sometimes seen as covering climate summits or relaying scientific studies. When reporting for The Green Blood Project, we discovered that for many [reporters] this impacts their lives rather significantly. First of all, because they live where the contamination happens. Second, because of the harassment that sometimes follows the publication of their reporting.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story/series and why?
Schilis-Gallego: We chose to focus on stories where journalists were particularly isolated. They would often investigate wrongdoings of powerful companies, sometimes closely linked to local authorities. In these kinds of situations, the journalists are particularly at risk because of the nature of their work and because they cannot seek protection from the authorities. It is a pattern that we noticed in all three countries (India, Guatemala and Tanzania).
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story, and why?
Schilis-Gallego: One thing we attempted to do was to collect satellite images to look at the receding coasts in India. We contacted researchers so they could work on it and analyze those scientifically. Because we lacked data and time, it was difficult to share the results of that work. If we were to do this again, we would probably contact experts very early in the investigation so they would have more time to help us.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your project?
The core lesson was that
the environmental harm
often involves many actors,
diluting the responsibility.
Schilis-Gallego: The core lesson was that the environmental harm often involves many actors, diluting the responsibility between many, which makes it difficult to hold a specific company or government accountable. It is thus critical to track all those involved in creating and benefiting from this pollution: the entire supply chain and the authorities that failed to protect the environment.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Schilis-Gallego: One thing that was very helpful in tracking the supply chain was to look at the special disclosure forms companies have to file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission if they use minerals susceptible to come from a conflict area. Those forms list all the refiners that can be part of their supply chain. Companies can also include those on their own website. Those forms were very helpful to figure out where gold extracted in a problematic Tanzanian mine might end up.
SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism?
Schilis-Gallego: A lot of reporters around the world are doing critical environmental journalism that is not necessarily highlighted as such. It is important to broaden our common understanding of environmental journalism.
Cécile Schilis-Gallego does investigative research for Forbidden Stories. She previously worked as a data journalist for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where she contributed to international collaborative investigations such as the Implant Files, the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 26. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.