BY Marcelo Moreira

Drug gangs, protests, impunity: the dangers of reporting from Brazil

The largest country in Latin America and fifth biggest in the world, Brazil is famous for its landscapes, beautiful beaches, culture and parties. But this same country faces huge problems of violence, political and economic instability and is a dangerous environment for journalists.

Among the 465 deaths of journalists registered by INSI from 2013-2017, 18 were in Brazil. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Brazil as the third deadliest country for media workers over that time period. Only Syria and Iraq were more dangerous – with the difference that Brazil is not a war zone.

It is important to note that Brazil is like two different countries when it comes to risks for journalists: the big cities and the countryside. Each of them demands a different approach to staying safe.

Risks in big cities

In metropolitan areas near state capitals, like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, journalists are exposed to urban violence and also to risks that are similar to those faced by journalists in war zones. In favelas where drug gangs with heavy weapons rule, journalists can be victims of retaliation from dealers or even the police who are fighting the gangs.

In 2002, journalist Tim Lopes from TV Globo - one of the largest media groups in Brazil - was killed after being kidnapped and tortured by drug traffickers in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in Rio. He was working undercover on a story to expose a child abuse network run by the traffickers.

In a rare exception in a country where impunity is the rule, the murderers were caught and brought to justice.

São Paulo, Rio and Brasilia are also known for attacks against journalists covering protests. From May 2013 to January 2018, the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji) registered 312 attacks against journalists covering demonstrations. Most of the attackers were members of the police or security forces who intentionally beat or arrested media workers. As the frequency and size of demonstrations in Brazil has decreased, those cases have become rarer.

In 2012, Abraji partnered with INSI on a huge program of safety trainings for journalists that helped to create a culture of safety in the Brazilian press. Today, in the big cities at least, journalists are more aware of the dangers they face, media companies have invested in safety equipment and doing risk assessments is now common in the big newsrooms.

Risks in the countryside

Away from the main metropolitan areas, journalists or citizen journalists working for small newspapers, community radio stations or blogs are killed with impunity – mostly in ambushes planned and ordered by politicians, businessmen and criminals whose wrongdoing was exposed by these journalists.

Very few killers of journalists are ever charged. If they are, those who ordered the killings are never exposed. As a result, journalists self-censor their reporting fearing for their lives.

To fight against impunity, in 2017 Abraji launched the Tim Lopes Project. Funded by the Open Society Foundation, its main goal is to shine a light on crimes against journalists to ensure they don’t go unpunished.

Whenever and wherever a journalist is killed due to his/her work, Abraji will gather a group of volunteer journalists to finish their last story and investigate their murder. The resulting reporting will be reproduced in Brazil’s main media outlets.

Last month, project coordinator Angelina Nunes and Abraji staff member Rafael Oliveira went to Edealina, a small city in the state of Goias, to investigate the murder of Jefferson Pureza, a radio worker shot three times on January 26. The local police arrested four suspects on February 9. The connection between the murder and Pureza’s work is still under investigation.

Long road ahead

We still have a long way to go in Brazil, but with the efforts of the journalism community in and outside the country the risks journalists face can be mitigated. One threat that has to be faced and fought against is the lack of solidarity among Brazilian journalists. Only together, and with the same focus, can we make Brazil a better environment for journalists and for society in general which will benefit from greater press freedom.

Marcelo Moreira is an award-winning Brazilian journalist and the former president of Abraji. He is an INSI board member who is currently completing a Knight-Wallace fellowship on safety for journalists at Michigan University.

Image by AFP