Report from Bali: Getting developing country journalists to cover climate conference

Dec 122007

Barely 10 percent of the journalists covering the United Nations climate change conference were from the developing countries (if those from the host country were not counted). Yet these countries will bear the brunt of climate changes, and initiatives at the conference will affect them profoundly. A program launched by three organizations brought 33 journalist from 16 developing countries to the Bali conference so their audiences can make informed decisions about the issues.

Sudan is a nation wracked by extremes of nature -- drought, floods and desertification -- and the United Nations climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, can affect its future in very crucial ways.

And the nation of 42 million depends on Nadra Mahdi to find out how how they will.

That's because the 26-year-old is the only newspaper reporter from that country at the Bali meeting (held Dec. 1 to 14).

"If I did not come here, my readers will only get the news from foreign [news] agencies and they will not give the news of Sudan at the UNFCCC," she said, using the acronym for the meeting's official name, United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change. "I am following the issues important for my country and how the conference decisions will affect us directly."

If a special program, the Climate Change Media Fellowships, hadn't brought her here, her Arabic language newspaper, Alahadath (meaning "Events"), would have had to rely on foreign news services. And most of the developments specific to her country and the work of her country's delegation would have gone unreported.

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The industrialized countries not only have a disproportionately huge carbon footprint compared to the developing countries, but their journalistic footprint also dwarfs that of the emerging nations.

Only nine percent of the journalists accredited to the conference in the Indonesian island resort, come from developing nations other than the host, according to a preliminary survey.

Rod Harbinson, an expert on media and development who did the survey, said that 66 percent of the reporters are from the industrialized nations. Indonesian reporters, who didn't have to spring for costly international flights, made up another 25 percent.

Because so few journalists from developing are covering the conference, “people [from developing nations] are getting the perspective of the rich countries on the issues at the conference," said Harbinson, who heads the , environment program for Panos, an organization that promotes media diversity around the world.

Three organizations banded together to do something about it.

Thirty three reporters from 16 countries -- Mahdi among them -- have come to Bali to cover the conference for their own media through the fellowship program run jointly by Internews, Panos and the International Institute for Environment and  Development (IIED).They are from countries as diverse as China and Jamaica or Uganda and Brazil and report on issues that hit close to home for their audience.

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I have been here in Bali from Dec. 1 through 11, observing the innovative program as its guest while I prepare to start my Knight International Journalism Fellowship on climate change in India next month. (Harry Surjadi, the Knight International Journalism Fellow in Indonesia has an important role as one the mentors and resource persons for the program.)

Walking into the cavernous white tent that housed the conference media center, I found during the first three days of the conference the only journalists of African descent there were the four sponsored by the Media Partnership Fellowship. (During the second week of the conference a few more joined them.)

Harbinson's analysis covered about 870 journalists who had registered by Nov. 9 with the conference media office. By the time the conference got underway, 1,265 journalists were accredited to cover the meeting.

One hundred and ninety one countries and official organizations sent a total of 3,264 participants to the meeting. Adding the representatives of UN and international organizations, the media and private organizations, more than 10,000 people were crammed into the conference. Harbinson pointed out that the disparity in numbers can be seen also among officials comprising official delegations. To take a random example, Jamaica (another country represented in the media fellowships program by Petre Williams of the Jamaica Observer) had seven officials at the conference, while Japan had 75.

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Although the media of some of the developing countries with big economies like China and India can afford to send reporters to such conferences, many can't.

Michael Wambi is the only radio reporter from Uganda, a nation of 30 million, and Salome Alweny of Kampala's Daily Monitor, the only print reporter from there. And both, again, are here because of the media fellowship program.

Wambi, 29, reports for the Voice of Teso radio in Soroti, which has 9 million listeners spread out around 14 administrative districts in eastern Uganda. He has told his readers about programs discussed here that could pay for planting forests and preserving them in Uganda to slow down the effects of climate change. And he has tried to explain how policies taking shape here could ultimately affect the pocketbooks or health of the listeners.

"Resolutions [from international meetings] that affect the common man end up in our parliament, which ratifies them without knowing the consequences" because of the lack of reporting about them in Uganda, he said. But because the media is here this time, "we will raise the level of public discourse from a local perspective" so next time they come up in parliament there will be an informed discussion, he added.

The scarcity of information is felt acutely in other nations like Rwanda, where Knight International Journalism Fellow Sputnik Kilambi works with radio stations. When a radio there wanted to find out the impact the meeting here will have on Africa, it turned to Wambi. In a telephone interview with the station, he explained to listeners in Rwanda what was happening here and how it could affect them.


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James Fahn, the executive director of Internews' Earth Journalism Network based in Bangkok, is one of those who came up with the idea for the media fellowship. He said that when he had been to cover international meetings he found few journalists from developing countries. The lack of reporting from those countries brought down the level of participation in global discussions of important issues, he said.

To remedy this, he and the other organizations came up with the idea of the fellowships to bring journalists from developing countries to Bali for the conference. Rather than just throw them in to covering the chaotic conference, the media partnership developed a program to help them learn about the issues of climate change. Not only is there a lot of scientific information to be unraveled, but the process of negotiations is very complex and the acronym-laden language of the conference itself needs a decoder.


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The media fellows started work a day before the UN meeting began and heard from experts about the various issues and received tips from experienced journalists about the tricks of reporting. Besides daily briefings, the program organized media clinics and seminars. An experienced editor, Alex Kirby, was on hand to help them cut through the fog of UN-speak and write in ways that people would find interesting and readable. Knight International Journalism Fellow Harry Surjadi (center in picture above with media fellows Myint Zaw of of Burma, left, and Rash Behari Bhattacharji of Malaysia) was also one of the mentors.

Wambi said that newsrooms in his country were not investing in training journalists and because they lacked specialized training, there was a "training gap" between some of the developing country journalists and and those from the industrialized nations. "You don't report at the same level," he said. "We could end up with jargon and not explain in a way my listeners can understand."

But the clinics and seminars have helped him, Wambi said. "Originally when I came, I said, 'Why spend two weeks here when everything was going to be wrapped up in the second week?' But the first week was a learning process; I found issues critical to my country and about the negotiating process." This made him a better reporter, he said.

For Mahdi it was an opportunity to see how everything and everyone are connected globally. "When I see the local community suffering from CC [climate change] problems, I thought no one else suffered," she said. "But I found here that it is the same in other countries like Malawi or India. When we see this, we will make connections and people can take many steps to solve the problems together."

"I also learned that climate change has many dimensions and not only scientific," she added. "It is also social, political and economic."

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One thing about the program matters a lot for Wambi: "They don't tell me how to report."

"They just give me the tools and let me report," he said. "They don't tell me how to frame my lede or what my story should say."