DAY 1 : 07 February 2020
SESSION 1: 2.30 – 4.00 pm

Gender, Climate Change and Disasters:  Can the Media be a Mediator?

This panel discussion focussed on what the media can do to address the most urgent issue of our times: the climate crisis, the effects of which will be felt by everyone on the planet but first, especially, by the most marginalised communities. Can we see prevention and mitigation through the gender lens? How do we report disasters in a time of news exhaustion and short memories? How do we convince editors to provide due time and space for climate change related coverage? How do we report conflicts over natural resources in the context of climate change? How do we reconcile the reporting on forest rights and conservation? Should our journalism induce fear or optimism – which is more constructive?

Moderators: Namita Waikar and Disha Shetty

Initiators of the discussion: Keya Acharya (Forum of Environmental Journalists in India), Vinuta Gopal (Asar), Helvellyn Timungpi (Karbi Anglong); Theja Ram (The NewsMinute), Durba Ghosh (Press Trust of India, Guwahati)   

Co-moderator Disha Shetty, a Bangalore-based science journalist, set the tone for the discussion by narrating her experience of travelling across seven states in the past one year to report on climate change. A surprising fact that came to light was the lack of documentation. For example, she realised that the impact of climate change on hill states has not yet been documented. Research is being done on the various impacts of climate change, but the media have not been looking at the findings consistently, and there is over-reliance on western news sources. The gender impact of climate change is a reality, she said, pointing to just one example to drive home the reality: women walking even longer distances to fetch water for the family. From her experience at a UN conference on climate change, she found that the discussion was not only about mitigation but action that would have greater impact. In countries with high income economies the movement against global warming has in recent times been a student-led one, but that is not the case in countries with low and middle income economies where, in fact, people – and women in particular – are already facing the disproportionate impact of climate change.

Keya Acharya, Bangalore-based president of the Forum of Environment Journalists in India (FEJI), which consists of more than 750 members, highlighted strategies for reporting. “To tackle gender in climate disasters, we need to first understand that the Indian media have undergone a sea of change in recent decades. Although there has been a proliferation of all types of media, especially TV, changes in the proprietorship of media companies have led to a weakening of editorial decisions on what types of stories should be covered: anything likely to hurt the company’s commercial interests is invariably shunned. Concerns about the environment and development, besides not being ‘profitable’, actually conflict with many commercial interests. This affects reportage of these issues even more than others,” she said, pointing out that “There are more fashion blogs than environment disaster stories.”

Keya acknowledged that in this changed scenario, reporting on climate issues,  particularly through a gender lens, is a challenging task for reporters. At the same time, India is in the midst of serious, economically harmful disasters related to climate change, as seen in the increasing number of and increasingly devastating catastrophes such as floods, drought, heatwaves, cyclones and storms.

She appealed for a “sea-change” in reporting practice to tackle the above issues: interlink your report to current concerns, even if through a tangential angle. “We must wedge gender and climate change in the mainstream by linking them to politics or the law or sports,  finding an angle that will get picked up by the media.”

Other tips she offered were:

  • Follow the money. Use the financial angle to highlight the plight of women and children in such disasters.
  • Try building up a media movement to follow this issue by researching thoroughly and writing good stories.
  • Use social media outlets if your publication kills your story. This is a delicate situation for those with contracts that do not allow publishing elsewhere, but there are ways around the barrier. Twitter, Instagram, Blogs, etc., allow for great creativity.
  • Link up with faith-based organisations; most do social work during disasters and provide good opportunities for linking with your main theme.

She concluded by touching on the challenges in persuading editors to okay gender stories.

Theja Ram from The NewsMinute, based in Bangalore, cited the example of the recent Karnataka floods to drive home her point about how climate change affects women in diverse ways. Changes in rainfall patterns and climate conditions affect women and, specifically, their health, she said. Pregnant and menstruating women face special difficulties. According to her, it is important for journalists to write about how climate change affects women, how it even leads to an increase in domestic violence. She also drew attention to the paucity of data on the gender-related impact of climate change. “Reporting should also target the policy makers to ensure that policies are inclusive of women,” she added.

 Durba Ghosh, PTI Bureau Chief in Guwahati, began by asking the question: “What do we NEED to hear about?” According to her, mainstream media in general neglect calamities in India’s north-eastern region. “Climate becomes a secondary concern when insurgency and the international weapons trade is impacting biodiversity,” she said. “The stress and strains of the northeast are such that disasters are waiting to happen. Water bodies are encroached upon and water-logging is a daily occurrence, along with landslides and floods.”

She explained how the north-eastern region is a biodiversity hotspot. “We have natural resources, we have geographical advantages. But you name any problem, we have them, too – like floods, erosion, landslides, a high seismic zone. Floods are reported, others are not,” she said. She admitted that working for a news agency has its limitations: the environment gets side-lined because of other stories that take prominence, like insurgency and anti-CAA protests. Yet, she said, conflict in the region has a direct impact on the environment – for example, poaching to fund the arms trade, pressure on land leading to environmental degradation. “Migration from rural areas to Guwahati and other urban areas is happening. Disasters like flash floods are already happening,” she said. Durba also identified lack of data as a problem in environment reporting.

Vinuta Gopal, with more than a decade experience of working with Greenpeace, now runs the environmental consultancy, Asar. She pointed out that the language has to change: “Climate change no longer describes the climate catastrophe we are facing. The world is past safe limits now, the language has to change. Crisis paralyses people. The world wants to shut it out.”

She spoke about how climate is generally treated as a peripheral issue and emphasised that climate change is not equitable. “Climate has always been treated as an environment issue, on the periphery. Environment is a ‘nice issue’; other issues like poverty, development, etc., take over. But addressing climate change is addressing development. In India, there is a lot of resistance to talking about climate change,” she said.

She agreed that “developing” nations bear the brunt of the consumption patterns of the “developed” world. She admitted that there was always tension between development and the environment. According to her, “Climate change is going to affect the marginalised, women and children the most. In India, we believe we have a right to pollute. Civil society resists the idea of adopting changes to fight climate change. We need to build a ‘Rainbow Coalition’. One step forward is to educate women. The kind of reporting we need is on creating infrastructure for the future – for example, how we grow our food, how we build our community.”

 Helvellyn Timungpi, who works with an English newspaper in Diphu, located in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, spoke about climate change in the context of Assam in general and Karbi Anglong in particular. As a member of the Karbi tribe herself, she said, “The tribes depend upon forests for their livelihood, which is getting affected by deforestation. Right now, a big crisis is happening due to deforestation. Of course, we can encourage people to grow vegetables and herbs, which are also disappearing, in their homes. Regarding gender, I am lucky to be in a society, my tribe, where men and women are treated equally.”

She described the travails of a woman reporter working in an area with active insurgencies. She spoke about how difficult it is to report under the circumstances, with bandhs, threats of violence, etc. She said she felt that journalists in the North East often have to grapple between toeing the official line and listening to the insurgents. Saying that she hoped to find answers for the problem from the gathering of journalists at the NWMI meeting, she shared her belief that, as a journalist, she could help in educating people.

 Namita Waikar, managing editor at the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), summarised the discussion thus far and spoke a little about PARI’s work on climate change, which includes a series on lived experiences of climate change across the country. She also talked about her experience of reporting about pastoralists in Gujarat, who depend on land for grazing. Although such land has been affected by climate change, only some of these communities have managed to find alternative solutions, she pointed out.

During the discussion that followed, Sumi Krishna pointed out that both gender and climate change are complex and it is important to deepen one’s own understanding to avoid making artificial linkages. She also highlighted the fact that the citizenship issue, which was being debated in the context of the CAA/NRC/NPR controversy, is also linked to the environment, stressing that it is not just conflict that has links with the environment. On the reported paralysis gripping communities in the face of such crises, she said, “Those who are actually affected have, in fact, shown great innovation in their efforts to deal with it.” She also pointed out that “In times of stress, gender roles change rapidly.”

There was a discussion on whether sensationalism contradicted journalism. It was also felt that urban planning and mitigation needs to be talked about. In response, Vinuta cited the example of Greta. According to her, “Greta is not about sensationalism, she had internalised the issue. The implications of climate change are dramatic. Stories can and need to be communicated with great force.”

The discussion also highlighted the fact that access to information for independent journalists/digital media is also an important need to keep in mind. The importance of  addressing policy while reporting on climate issues was also spoken about.

 Joyshree Oisham, from Manipur cited the example of a viral video of a young girl, Valentina, crying when a tree was cut down. She is now the brand ambassador for afforestation in Manipur. According to her, “Plantation drives are carried out, but do we follow up on these? We all say jhum (shifting) cultivation has to stop, but we have to provide alternatives. In the plains, farmlands are shrinking as factories are coming up. All issues are interlinked.”

Satakshi Gawade from Pune pointed out that while reporting on disasters, politicians are often named, but there are also planning and adaptation issues, and the administration should also be questioned about their role.

Dhanya Rajendran pointed out that, in 2015, everyone in Chennai was reading about the environment due to the devastating floods there. But interest has gone down now because people tend to read up on a subject mainly when it impacts them. She also mentioned the dangers and problems  women journalists in digital media face while reporting under such circumstances as they do not have government-issued identity cards.

Concurring with Dhanya, Vinuta said women in digital media have difficulty in accessing remote areas and resources. Yet digital media provide a large amount of  space to focus on diverse issues.

“As journalists, we are at the forefront, said Linda Chhakchhuak. “We have to study why climate change is happening. Climate change is a result of global warming towards which we have been pushed by fossil fuels and governments. In the North East dams, national highways, major projects are coming up, which will lead to deforestation and evictions, and eventually to global warming. We have to educate ourselves about what we are doing.  It has to be internalised by everyone, of course, but all the more by journalists.”

Rohini Mohan pointed out that one of the difficulties faced in environment reporting is showing or explaining the series of actions that caused the problems. Given the severity of the problems, how can responsibility be fixed, she wanted to know. Keya responded by stating that there is no choice but to put the bigger issue, bigger picture forward, however difficult it may be.

Joining in, Geeta Seshu said, “When we talk about climate change, policy is often not touched. Yet many disasters start with policies.” According to her, the bias of experts talking about projects being undertaken at the cost of environment needs to be kept in mind.

Theja responded by saying, “Sometimes we need to ask the question: is there any other way amenities can be delivered (without harming the environment)? Journalists can take lead in this.”

Vinuta maintained that persistence and doggedness lead to results. But many people, including journalists, do not know how to connect projects or problems with policies.

According to Helvellyn, journalists should have some training on how to report on such issues. Namita responded by suggesting that NWMI could have a resource group to look into training.

One member of the audience raised a question about how to strike a balance between emotional connection and objectivity, while another suggested that journalists should look at disability, mental health angles, too, look for solutions and report on positive options. According to Namita, one can use one’s emotions to pursue a story, but put it aside while writing the story.

Disha suggested that finding a person who has been affected and basing the story on him/her could be an effective way to narrate such stories. Keya agreed that background knowledge would help journalists and FEJI was open to collaborating on such initiatives.