The political economy of environment

Discussions during the Himal Media Mela 2024 range from AI and data mining to climate finance and environmental crime


The third Himal Media Mela 2024 continued on Friday following the keynote speech from Mohamed Nasheed, climate activist, writer/journalist, and former president of the Maldives. 

The day-long symposium included four workshops and two panel discussions ranging from possibilities of AI usage in newsrooms to threats faced by investigative journalists in environmental reporting, to climate finance. 

In the first session of the day, Naresh Newar gave a workshop on AI in the Newsroom with a presentation about how media practitioners can responsibly use Large Language Models (LLM) and Generative AI to ease their workload. 

“One main way AI can lighten the burden of journalists is by using it on small repetitive tasks that could lead to burnout,” said Newar, adding that newsrooms can use AI in such tasks as proofreading, transcription, review, and research. 

“However, one must not claim AI-generated content as their own,” cautioned Newar.  

The workshop also delved into the rapid advancement of AI technology, as well as its limitations. There was also discussion surrounding the ethics of AI use, and the need for newsrooms to be careful in identifying AI-generated content that might be posed as human-generated media. 

Meanwhile, during the workshop on Data Mining to Tell Compelling Stories, data journalists Mohan Mainali and Arun Karki shed light on formulating stories from available data sources, and the importance of interactive data in storytelling.

“A single set of data can generate multiple stories and analyses,” said Arun Karki. “The key is to know how and where to look.”

Sharing his experiences while reporting for a three-part series published in Nepali Times analysing meteorological, hydrological and demographic data from eastern Nepal, Mohan Mainali emphasised on the importance of data visualisation.

“Like the expression, ‘show, don’t tell’ goes—it is the journalist’s responsibility to visualise and present data in the most easily apprehensible way for audiences,” said Mainali. “And although numbers by themselves do not have much to say, visualising those numbers reveals trends.”

The speakers also encouraged journalists to make the most out of open-source and freely available data while reporting on environmental issues, adding that climate-related data are more accessible than most.  

“When media is under a financial crisis, data journalism lets journalists form a story without actually having to go to the field,” added Mainali.

Later in the day, water expert Ajaya Dixit during the workshop Media for Early Warning of Disasters discussed how Nepal can move to a disaster-resilient future. He highlighted that Nepal’s policies recognise that it is prone to multi-hazards, and must be prepared for them.

“The media must proactively communicate relevant messages before, during and after disasters, but attributing all environmental issues to climate change is not enough,” he said.

“Furthermore, no disaster is natural,” added Dixit, giving an example of how poorly built houses kill people, not earthquakes themselves. “Media coverage must stop referring to disasters as natural.

“We need to recognise the events within our borders—such as the soot from wildfires that are expediting the melting of the mountains— that contribute to the climate crisis,” remarked Rama Parajuli of the BBC.

Dixit also pointed to the need for collaboration between media practitioners, researchers, and development partners, and that knowledge and information need to be cross-validated.”

“Disaster, hazard, vulnerability, and risk are used interchangeably in Nepal. These terms need to be contextualised, disaggregated, and used appropriately,” he further added. “Reporting has to be based in science.”

The workshop Investigating Climate Finance led by economist Rashtraraj Bhandari of the Asian Development Bank was a crash course into climate finance, as well as jargon journalists must understand while reporting on climate finance.

The economist during his presentation emphasised the need for nations to generate their climate funds. 

“Foreign grants and funding are never going to be enough to combat climate crises, and expecting external funding for them is more costly in the long-term— both economically and  socially,” said Bhandari, “We as a country must identify what ‘green’ means for us, not what is dictated by grant-giving countries or projects.”

Bhandari also urged the journalists that storytelling should look beyond numbers. “Real stories are the ones that visualise the impact of crises,” he added.

The Media Mela continued into the second half of the day with two panel discussions. 

In the session Threats against Environmental Journalists,  moderator Bidhya Rai, as well as panellists Ramesh Bhushal and Ramu Sapkota narrated personal experiences in the field while discussing the dangers that Nepali reporters who investigate environmental exploitation and crimes face. 

“Our rich natural resources are being exploited by those in power, and is part of our economic activity,” noted moderator Bidhya Rai said during the session’s introductory remarks. 

Ramesh Bhushal, Nepal editor of The Third Pole, remarked that environmental journalism had long been attributed to travel and luxury, and simply writing about nature.

“Environmental reporting is political reporting—it involves reporting on corruption, and those exploiting resources for their self-interest,” said  “It is thus people-based reporting,” added Bhushal.

Bhushal added that environmental journalists have been under threat from the moment that environmental reporting began in the 70s, soon after the exploitation of natural resources became part of the mainstream discourse globally.

There are not just threats to journalists’ physical safety. The increasing fragility of the environment also means that reporters face the risk of experiencing disasters like landslides and floods while in the field. 

“While there is information that can be accessed remotely, one cannot report about the environment entirely from the desk, it has to be done from the field,” said independent journalist Ramu Sapkota.

Journalists also face possibilities of legal repercussions, from local-level leaders to powerful political cronies. And it is not just journalists who risk their safety. The panellists also spoke about how sources become hesitant to communicate with reporters when their lives and safety are threatened. 

“The climate of fear in the community is increasing,” said Bhushan.

“Independent journalists and local reporters are under more risk than reporters who have support from and are in communication with their newsrooms,” added Sapkota.  

The panellists further discussed how maintaining constant communication with newsrooms, as well as friends, and family can mitigate risks to media practitioners who investigate environmental exploitation.

Also present in the session were Laxmi and Sangam Mahato, the sisters of Dilip Mahato, an activist who was murdered by contractors extracting sand from the Aurahi River in Dhanusha. Dilip had been protesting illegal sand mining in the river and organising the local community to conserve the Chure Hills. 

His sisters have continued their brother’s fight to save their river and village from illegal sand mining even as they continue to get threatened by their brother’s killers. 

The panelists also spoke about what they called a ‘grey area’ between environmental journalism and environmental activism.

“While we should not be engaging in activism, we should provide information that enables activism,” said Bhushal.

Sapkota agreed. “We need to provide space to and encourage those who want to take up activism.”

Meanwhile, public interest litigator Sanjay Adhikari during the panel Economics of Ecology also touched upon the need for environmental activism. “Environmental activism is not a want for us, it’s a need,” said the lawyer.

Adhikari also spoke about what he called “absurdities” in the plans for the Nijgadh airport, including the scale of the trees cut down to make way for the project, and claims that animals would “retreat into the forest from the runways when planes landed.” 

Environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar, who was also part of the panel, also offered critique of Nepal’s environmental policies while championing electric public transport as a public good— reminding the audience that over half of the households, even in the Kathmandu Valley, do not own private vehicles. 

Tuladhar also noted how environmental issues disproportionately affect some communities and groups over others. “Indoor pollution is a major part of air pollution in Nepal that directly affects women and children,” he said.

Tuladhar highlighted the economic and health costs of environmental issues such as pollution, reminding that air pollution costs the world 6% of its GDP —$8.1 trillion— every year, on healthcare costs. 

Tuladhar asked: “What would we be willing to pay for an extra 1.2 years of life, which would be possible if the air pollution decreased by only 30%?”