September 07, 2018
Iqtidar Gilani, a senior reporter with English language daily The Nation, has been covering the environment for the past 18 years but struggles to dedicate time to in-depth investigative pieces on the subject. He is often bogged down by ‘routine stories’ — a euphemism for hard news stories centred on politics, crime and the economy.
“Despite being an existential crisis for Pakistan, climate change receives little attention in the national English dailies,” Gilani told thethirdpole.net.
Coverage of climate change is imperative for Pakistan, which is the fifth country most vulnerable to climate change according to think-tank Germanwatch. In a report released this year, Germanwatch said Pakistan has lost 9,989 lives, suffered economic damages worth USD 3.8 billion and experienced 152 extreme weather events from 1999 to 2018. But despite these alarming figures, the climate crisis does not feature prominently or even regularly across Pakistan’s vibrant broadcast and print media landscape.
Lack of technical skills
Among the range of challenges that discourage coverage of the climate crisis, one major hurdle is the lack of training amongst journalists. Gilani said that the subject at times becomes “too difficult for journalists to understand”.
“The reports and journals on climate change are complex. At times, even I find the executive summaries of reports too technical to understand,” he said.
The lack of training is not limited to reporters, as editors in major newsrooms are also not able to grasp the issue comprehensively said Salim Bokhari, a senior journalist who until recently was the chief editor of The Nation. “The news editors do not give climate change stories their due display since they are also not aware of the importance of the subject. There is hardly any understanding of the impact that climate change is going to have on future generations.”
Pervaiz Bashir, the head of reporting at the widely read Urdu newspaper Daily Jang, said the long-term impact of environmental degradation is one factor which makes it difficult for reporters to understand the issue.
“Access to reliable data on climate change is another challenge,” he said.
Another broadcast journalist from Lahore, Arsalan Rafique Bhatti, currently associated with television channel Din News, suggested that the media has not “fully understood” the threat posed by climate change.
“If the media hasn’t understood the problem how will it explain it to someone else?” he asked.
Bhatti demonstrated how the climate crisis competes for airtime with current affairs stories. “The broadcast media is failing in its moral responsibility to highlight climate change. Airtime is mostly consumed by politics, the prime minister’s activities, National Assembly proceedings and infotainment,” he said, adding, “Environment falls in the last slot.”
The 9 PM prime time bulletin is the most watched broadcast segment in Pakistan but it is rare for a climate change story to make it to that slot.
Ahmad Waleed, the bureau chief of channel Samaa TV in Lahore, acknowledged that “the level of coverage is not up to the mark” and highlighted the media’s tendency to cover climate stories reactively as a challenge.
“The broadcast media mostly covers imminent issues like smog, industrial pollution, air pollution and vehicle emissions,” he said.
Waleed explained why climate change is not high on the agenda in newsrooms. “As a developing country, Pakistan has been witnessing war-like situations and terrorism besides political instability. The mainstream media has been focusing on these issues while climate change has been the lowest priority.”
He said that the government should fund climate change stories to fulfil its responsibilities of creating public awareness.
Snapshot of disconnect in Gilgit Baltistan
A questionnaire taken by 15 journalists associated with the Gilgit press club highlights the challenges faced by the local media when it comes to daily climate change reporting.
The Gilgit Baltistan region is particularly vulnerable to climate change as it has a fragile mountain ecosystem and also because factors such as the fast melting of glaciers drastically affect the local community.
Shabbir Ahmed Mir, a senior environmental journalist from Gilgit Baltistan said, “The biggest
hurdle in communicating the impact of climate change impact is the lack of capacity of the local journalists.”
He added, “The remoteness of Gilgit Baltistan makes it difficult for media trainers to visit this mountainous region frequently and train journalists on climate reporting.”
“Since local journalists from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region are unable to produce investigative stories on the environment, they limit themselves to producing environmental news only when a natural calamity occurs,” Shabbir said.
Collectively, these factors mean there is a lack of climate change awareness among the local population, and compound the issue of lack of preparedness and disaster mitigation. The effects of poor coverage of the environment were reflected in BBC’s 2013 Climate Asia report, which said that 65% of the people in Pakistan don’t even know the meaning of “climate change”. The report suggests that “communication can play a key role in supporting people to respond to the impacts of changes in climate by increasing awareness of the issue, its causes and its implications.”
Laurie Goering, the editor of the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) news website on the humanitarian and development impacts of climate change, explained why the coverage of climate change stories is weak. “Reporters often think it is a complex topic and one about science. But in fact, climate change impacts all reporting beats, from politics and economics to farming, sports, etc.” Goering added, “Sometimes reporters also have trouble getting editors to print their stories, as editors think the topic is not as interesting as politics.”
On the extent to which TRF covers the environment and climate change in Pakistan, Goering said, “TRF has a number of freelance reporters in Pakistan writing stories about climate change issues, and has had them for a decade or more now. We have told stories about everything from farming adaptation to climate change to risks on glacial lake outbursts, uptake of clean energy, water security and so on.”
As a country which is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, there is no doubt that the trend of poor reporting on the issue must subside. Some journalists hope that the government will do its part in creating awareness on environmental issues.
“[The government should] sponsor television programmes and special pages in print media, and also give excellent coverage to the subject in national media through [publicly funded] PTV and Radio Pakistan,” said Salim Bokhari.
Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a 2018 Chevening Scholar with a masters in international journalism from Cardiff University. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via [email protected]