By Water Journalists Africa

Amidst the spirited celebration of Global World Press Freedom Day in Chile, a groundbreaking fusion of environmental investigative journalism and artistic expression unfolded, illuminating the urgent need for innovative storytelling formats for the environmental crisis worldwide.

The initiative, by UNESCO’s Multi Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP), facilitated a collaboration between investigative reporters and artists, who teamed up to transform the stories into compelling art installations, presenting the investigative findings in a visually artistic manner. The outcome was a captivating display of art installations, each portraying significant regional and global environmental crises that have undergone thorough scrutiny by the media.

Their creations were showcased on the sidelines of the World Press Freedom Day conference in Chile, in May 2024 unified under the theme “Media & Art Capture Climate Change.”

UNESCO hosted the 31st World Press Freedom Day Conference in Santiago, Chile, from May 2nd to May 4th, 2024.

World Press Freedom Day celebrates press freedom around the world and this year, it highlighted the importance of journalism and freedom of expression in the context of the global climate crisis.

This creativity drew together four journalists and environmental investigators from Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America, alongside Chilean artists from the Future School.

Ma’aly Hazzaz, Coordinator of UNESCO’s Multi Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, emphasizes that climate change and environmental issues rank among the “biggest challenges the world faces today.”

She highlights the vital role of media in both “shaping public discourse and bearing witness” to this defining crisis but expresses concern that “conveying the urgency and impact of climate change can be challenging.”

The artists, accompanied by Ma’aly Hazzaz, Coordinator of UNESCO’s Multi Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (in front with glasses), pose with the artist statement board during the exhibition.. Photo by UNESCO.

According to Ma’aly, by combining media and art, UNESCO aimed to, “bridge the gap between scientific data and public awareness and motivate action for change.”

The exhibit from Africa featured curated works by award-winning water, climate change, and wildlife journalist Fredrick Mugira, showcasing his impactful contributions to water journalism. It centered on his yearlong investigation into plastic water pollution conducted in 2022 which was honored with the 2023 Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communications, a prestigious accolade recognizing the innovative efforts of science journalists, research scientists, and science communicators in disseminating scientific advancements to the general public.

This outcome stemmed from his extensive Bertha fellowship project undertaken throughout 2022. During this fellowship, he dedicated himself to exploring the impacts of plastic pollution on rivers, with a particular focus on the Nile, the world’s longest river, and the surrounding lakes within Uganda and the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mugira is also the founder of Water Journalists Africa, an organization that spearheads several initiatives, including InfoNile, Nilewell, and the Apes Reporting Project.

Among other, Mugira’s investigation unearthed a significant revelation: the River Nile’s role as a conduit for plastic waste, transporting it from the African Great Lakes region to the Mediterranean Sea.

He delved deeply into the nexus of plastic pollution and its repercussions on water bodies. With a keen focus on the Western Rift Valley lakes in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that drain into the Nile River, Fredrick’s work examined the origins, impacts, and potential solutions to plastic pollution in these specific areas.

To visually present this project, artists chose to spotlight aspects that might otherwise slip by unnoticed. They ingeniously portrayed plastic in food and drinks. For example, they precisely crafted salads from plastic materials, formed fried eggs using plastics, molded rice from plastics, and even simulated plastic beer in glasses among others. And these were placed on the dining table, ready to be enjoyed. The table seemed adorned with a sumptuous feast, enticing to the eye. Yet, upon closer scrutiny, one discovered a sinister truth lurking amidst the apparent abundance. Each delectable dish harbored a clandestine guest – plastic pollution stealthily masquerading within the very essence of the food.

A plate of food with bread buttered with plastic. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Ricardo Núñez-Morales, an artist with The Future School, Chile who managed the exhibition site, says Mugira’s works, provoked “reactions of surprise and disgust” from some viewers, which was the “genuine reaction we expected.”

Ricardo, who is the head of UARMEDIA, the media content creation area of ​​the Open University of Recoleta, Chile stresses that artwork required no translation.

And Ricardo was not there alone; “our families and friends” were also present and contributed to the “staging and execution of the works, which transformed this adventure into a heartfelt family effort,” he says.

For Margarita Paulina Abascal Quezada, one of the attendees at the exhibition, the beauty lay not only in the artwork itself but also in meeting the writers behind the stories that were visualized. She ensured to take a photo with Mugira for future reminiscence.

Reflecting on his participation in the event, Mugira expressed profound admiration for the entire journey of the art exhibition, from its conceptualization to its final display at the World Press Freedom Day Conference in Chile. He described the experience as “truly amazing,” emphasizing how the creative “visualization of their stories marked a refreshing departure from conventional journalistic storytelling methods.”

Mugira, who spoke during the plenary season at UNESCO 2024 World Press Freedom Day, says working with the artists and art students was, “a rewarding experience.”

Mugira spoke at the plenary session at the 2024 Press Freedom Day Conference in Chile alongside Minna-Liina Lind, Estonia’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Global Affairs, Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa, actor, producer and environmental activist Gael García Bernal.

“They managed to capture and show the essence of our stories,” notes Mugira, emphasizing that particularly in his project, the message effectively depicted the prevalence of plastics in “our food and drinks.”

He says it was evident that people were intrigued by the ubiquity of plastics in their daily lives, as reflected in their conversations and reactions during the exhibition.

Mugira collaborated with Francisco Martínez Olivares, who serves as the Regional Director for Latin America at The Future School.

Francisco highlights the inclusive aspect of this innovation, expressing that, “our intention was to democratize the art experience by transforming it into a social initiative.”

Ricardo Núñez-Morales, an artist from The Future School (left), guides an exhibition attendee through the innovative fusion of plastics and food. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

According to Francisco, this way, the act of creating art becomes accessible not only to artists but also to educators, students. He stresses that, “engaging in crafting fosters a receptive mindset for important reflection.”

He expresses regret over the fact that plastics infiltrate dining tables and contaminate people’s food without their awareness, emphasizing that, “by presenting this issue visually in this manner, both participants and spectators can grasp what might otherwise go unnoticed.”

In addition to Fredrick Mugira, other journalists contributing to the project included Maksuda Aziz from Bangladesh, whose investigative report titled “increasing salinity puts marginal minority coastal community in vicious cycle of debt” shaded light on the challenges faced by the ethnically migrated marginal community Munda during pregnancy. It underscored how escalating salinity levels propel them into a protracted cycle of debt during childbirth. Alyaa Abo Shahba, an Egyptian journalist, focused on the profitable trade of migratory bird hunting in Egypt, a key route for bird migration. Karla Mendes from Brazil explored the detrimental impact of the palm oil industry, exposing its role in deforestation and pollution in the Amazon.

The exhibition also showcased a report on the loss of cultural heritage in ancient Chilean highland valleys due to debris flow and floods, featuring findings from The Future Schools 2023 Chilean Expedition.

Salads infused with plastics. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Boris van Westering, the founder of Building Bridges organization and a climate journalism development expert from The Netherlands, emphasizes the unique perspective provided by the art exhibition on environmental investigative reports from various parts of the world.

Boris spoke at a panel at the UNESCO 2024 World Press Freedom Day entitled “Rewriting climate change narratives: artistic approaches to inclusive storytelling.”

He highlights the impact of the art installation on reimagining climate change storytelling expressing that “the art installation enabled me to truly immerse myself in the story, connect with others in the same space, and encouraged me to revisit the narrative with fresh eyes.”

According to Boris, such an innovation, offers new insights into the environmental topic and underscores “the incredible importance of good journalism and the power of art.”

This story was first published on