#RioPlus20 – Journalists compete with ousted prime ministers and revolutions to cover Rio conference

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, journalist Zofeen
Ebrahim (right) interviews a source at the
UN summit on sustainable development.
By Katie Taft

Among a sea of more than 3,000 journalists clacking away at keyboards in the media centre at the Rio+20 conference, Zofeen Ebrahim desperately searched for an adapter for her computer. Having arrived in Rio de Janeiro just 12 hours earlier, Ebrahim bubbled with nervous energy, or perhaps jetlag.

“I need to get something to eat and then I want to find a woman leader who was here 20 years ago,” she said as she struggled to plug in the adapter loaned to her by a fellow journalist.

A mother of two from Pakistan, Ebrahim was in Rio last week to cover the conference along with 16 other journalists from developing countries around the world. Their trip was part of an IFAD-supported training programme presented by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) and IPS International News Agency.

“When I left Pakistan to come here, my country had a prime minister,” Ebrahim said between mouthfuls of pizza in the canteen of the conference venue. “When I landed in Rio, my country no longer had a prime minister.” Just the day before, Pakistan’s Supreme Court had removed Yousuf Raza Gilani, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, from office.

I asked Ebrahim if she felt that she was missing the year’s best news story in her own country by coming to Rio. She immediately shook her head and said she did not. The Rio summit on sustainable development “is important for Pakistan,” she added. “It is a story that needs attention, too.”

Best practices for journalists
Ebrahim and other journalists from developing countries face multiple challenges that go well beyond the annoyance of overcoming jetlag or finding a local adapter. One of the biggest is a lack of access to experts when covering highly technical topics. This is where TRF and IPS step in, with training that focuses on best practices to help the journalists increase the quality of their stories on issues related to climate change.

No one knows the struggles of reporting on climate change more than Bassem Abo Alabass, a 24-year-old journalist from Egypt. In his brief career, Abo Alabass has already seen the inside of a prison cell for two days after taking to the streets in Cairo, not as a journalist but as “one of the people.”

He is not surprised when I tell him that he is the only registered journalist from Egypt attending the Rio+20 conference.

Abo Alabass recently wrote a piece, for the news website Ahram Online, about a scientific report on the decreasing water level of the Nile. Because it was online, he was able to track how many readers followed the story. “Very few people read it,” he said. “People in Egypt have only one thing on their minds. Making climate change a story that they can connect to right now is hard.”

Two days after we spoke in Rio, Abo Alabass returned to Egypt and came home to a new president-elect, Mohammed Mursi. Eighteen months after street protests forced Hosni Mubarak to quit, Mursi had become the country’s first democratically elected civilian president.

Tough job, important story
When you are faced with revolutions on your doorstep, it is difficult to write a story on sustainable development that will interest readers, IPS trainer Miren Gutiérrez told me during a pause in the journalists’ workshop in Rio. Couple that with the fact that they were competing with those 3,000 other journalists for interviews at the Rio+20 conference, and an already tough job just got tougher.

But for Zofeen Ebrahim, it was worth the trouble. “I am glad I came here,” she said, running to do an interview on the last day of the conference. “This is just too important, not just for people in Pakistan, but for everyone.”

Read one of Ebrahim’s stories filed from Rio here and another here.