Svetlana Kharitonova
Svetlana Kharitonova
"Green Salvation" ecological society
When did you start working in environmental journalism?
When I started working at Green Salvation; it's been 15 years already. Before that, I worked in consulting; at some point, I realized that it was not really for me. Almost by accident, I came to the ecological society, and they immediately gave me the task: I needed to write materials for the website on the environmental problems of our city.
How do you assess the situation with environmental journalism in Kazakhstan?
Over the years of work in Green Salvation, we have collected a large pool of those who constantly write on environmental topics, but in general, this topic is not emphasized; it does not come out on top, although there are a lot of environmental problems in the country. We hadn't seen it in the media for a long time; it's starting just now, when we have social media and people began to actively use them, when the public itself sets the direction for the information field. Only now, the authorities have begun to respond more, and journalists write more about it, but the general tone is set by social media. People post some kind of emotional impulse on social media, help me, they're cutting down trees under my windows, and journalists, without trying to sort things out or somehow investigating, just copy it and pass it off as their own materials. I often discuss this with my colleagues. Or our press releases are simply reprinted. There are only a few journalists who delve into the topic. The well-known journalist Vadim Nikolaevich Boreiko took up this topic, and there are several more people, but in general, these are isolated examples. Environmental journalism in our country is rather just copy-pasting from social media.
You said about the pool of journalists that is now being formed; what is it?
I can tell you about our organization. For many years, we have been collecting data on all the journalists who approached us for comments. My task is not only to write but also to monitor the information field; in the morning, I review government websites and major media to see whether there was anything on an environmental topic in them. And when I see that some journalist writes on a topic that we're concerned about, I contact him or her. We have collected 300 to 400 email addresses like this.
Whoa!
Well, not all of them continue to be interested in the environment, and some journalists and organizations have several addresses, so divide this figure by two.
It's a decent number anyway.
Out of these, we continuously cooperate with about twenty people: give them our information and tell them what aspects they can pay attention to so that the materials really have high quality.
Does this community have a common agenda?
No, these are journalists who write on a variety of topics, including environmental topics. They are in no way related to each other and do not specialize in environment-related issues. They are just people who our organization works with.
Is this climate journalism project your first international experience, or have you done something similar before?
This is a new experience for me and for our organization. I've collaborated with colleagues from other countries, but doing joint work, an integrated material — it's the first time.
From the beginning, each of the project participants identified some basic topics for themselves, and you were talking about air pollution right from the start. Why?
Well, first of all, this is indeed the most important problem of our city, very relevant, and I'm personally concerned about it. I really see people getting ill and suffering. Although, in my mini-research, in fact, we did not see confirmation of an increase in the incidence of diseases in open data. According to open data, everything is fine here. From all the stands, public figures and activists are screaming that we have an increase in the incidence of diseases of the respiratory, endocrine, and circulatory systems, but official statistics did not show it. As a resident, I see that all my nephews and my child became ill with age, they got allergies and respiratory problems; that is, I see it in my life, in my environment, I see it with the naked eye, because I go to the mountains every weekend. And, as I get up there, I see it with my own eyes, without any sensors: the smog, it's really scary. We breathe it, and I understand the way it can affect our health.
What sources did you use in preparing the material?
I must say that, in recent years, our access to environment-related information has become easier. If a couple of years ago it was necessary to request everything in writing and wait for months, now this is easier. There is official information from Kazhydromet, there are some outdated or inactive pages somewhere (it says that they are there, but they actually aren't), but in general, there is some part of the information, and we use it. Concerning independent public monitoring, we have a website for environmental public monitoring that was made by Pavel; his data is always open, you can check it every day, and he also publishes analytical charts from time to time.
Is all information available in Kazakhstan? Concerning open data, how open is it?
It was a discovery for us that you have to pay for medical statistics. That was a mini-experience for us. We spent more time than planned to obtain disease incidence data because, at first, we were denied this data, and then, we were sent to another place; we had to write a second request and run around. They called us and told us that they would not give it; we demanded a reason for refusal and threatened to sue, and only after that, we were provided with the data and given an invoice. This was a small amount of money for an organization: 4 thousand tenges (about $10), but it's just strange that you have to pay for information of public importance. The request was about six indicators; they told us that they did not have them all, and in the end, they only gave data for one indicator.
Four thousand tenges: is it a fixed amount for one request or for some pages of information?
This is a fixed rate. Over the years of our operation, we have won more than one lawsuit regarding the right to access information. This was recognized based on international conventions and national legislation; we have the right to receive environmental information, and the court obliged government agencies to provide us with data. This experience has shown to government agencies that it is easier to provide information after all.
How did you find the hero?
In fact, I needed time to do it. When we discussed it in the group, we thought it would be very simple: we would write an announcement on social media, and the hero would be found right away. I have three thousand Facebook subscribers, so I did not expect any problems there. But no-one responded to my invitation to share stories from their lives. I discussed it with my friends and subscribers many times. To no avail. So I started looking for people in my circles. I came across a post of a person who was telling a story about moving to Almaty and discovering problems with allergies and respiratory organs. He thought it was due to air pollution. I thought, here he is, my hero! But, you know, I didn't convince him to tell his story for our material. We talked on the phone, and he promised to think about it, but he never agreed.
Why do you think he didn't?
I really do not know. It was a big surprise for me. Because I can't say that people here are scared; they actually speak openly and write about everything on social media, so for me, it was very surprising. I continued to look for people in my circles. I was persuading one girl for a very long time; I was telling her how important it was. I knew for sure that she had respiratory problems; she talked about it and also thought it was due to air pollution. She had problems during the lockdown; due to covid, there were problems with access to medicines in Almaty; she is asthmatic, and she couldn't find medicines for herself. She was on the verge; at any moment, she could have an attack, and no medicine could be found. For a long time, she was not ready to speak on camera, but later, we managed to record the interview. She says there that it is necessary to raise this topic because the authorities do not recognize the problem and not everyone understands the linkage between their diseases and the bad environment. Someone complains that their child is sick and then burns rubber and garbage in their bathhouse. Because in our city, the position of the townspeople is that only the authorities are to blame. Few people take responsibility for the environment. We tried to reflect this in the cards.
I remember you discussed them; someone said they were useful, and someone doubted.
We decided right away that we needed something short and clear. To have a clear message. You can talk about the problem in different ways. We see that on social media; pictures are more popular than text. So we tried to combine everything: text, photos, and videos. And we came up with these cards that you can share and even print out as bookmarks. Each audience needs its own content. It is difficult to cover everything in one project, but you need to try to find an approach to everyone. You have to try everything.
Will there be a translation into Kazakh?
Yes, sure. At all environment-related meetings, we hear about the same problem: we have very few materials on the environment in the Kazakh language, so most of the audience falls out. We foresaw this right from the start; we'll do the translation.
What experiences would you like to share with aspiring journalists?
For any journalist today, the number of views of his or her material is important. Many journalists are chasing attention and only turn to hype topics. Let's be honest: materials about the environment don't get a lot of likes or views, so no-one wants to take them on. I just wanted to say that environmental issues concern everyone: we all breathe the same air. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor; it is impossible to buy yourself clean air while living in a city. This topic concerns one and all. I would like journalists to remember this.
What was the most difficult part of working on the project for you, and what was the most enjoyable?
It turned out to be difficult to find a hero, although I was sure that I wouldn't have problems with this. The process of work and the communication were pleasant; the experience of other countries was interesting. I think our material should make people think, look at everything a little differently, and rethink their actions, their behaviors. It will be nice if our material helps someone to understand something.
Diana Svetlichnaya
project mentor
Maria Kazakova
design, layout
The project is implemented by n-ost (Germany) and the International Center for Journalism MediaNet (Kazakhstan) in partnership with the Center for Media Development (Kyrgyzstan), and the editorial offices of Anhor.uz (Uzbekistan) and Asia-Plus (Tajikistan), as well as the online magazine Vlast (Kazakhstan) with the support of the Federal Ministry of Economic

Cooperation and Development of Germany.
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