Brazil is booming. Latin America’s largest and most populous nation recently surpassed the United Kingdom to become the world’s sixth-largest economy – and is projected to move up one more spot by the end of 2012.
Oil production has skyrocketed, while poverty has hit historic lows. The country will host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. And the “B” in the powerful BRIC group of developing nations is lobbying for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
But as the world celebrates Brazil’s indisputable rise, a growing tide of violence against journalists working in the country’s vast interior and border regions – where the effects of rapid development and democratization have yet to be fully felt – is going largely unnoticed.
While the deterioration of press freedom in Mexico and Ecuador has dominated headlines of late, Brazil witnessed the murders of 5 journalists in 2011, its highest total since the International Press Institute (IPI) began its Death Watch in 1997 and equal to the previous three years combined. All but one of those killings occurred outside major urban areas.
The troubling trend has continued into 2012. In February, Mário Randolfo Marques Lopes, an editor in the interior of Rio de Janeiro state, was kidnapped and executed along with his girlfriend. Just five days later, motorcycle-bound gunmen killed journalist and newspaper owner Paulo Rocaro in a small town along the volatile Paraguayan border in Mato Grosso do Sul.
The deaths of Lopes and Rocaro, both of which occurred in cities with a population of less than 100,000, are illustrative of the current press freedom situation in Brazil: while the media environment in the country’s globalized metropolises appears increasingly healthy, journalists working outside the centers of federal power continue to be targeted by drug cartels, powerful local politicians, and others who fear the consequences of investigative reporting.
“In a general sense, Brazil today enjoys full press freedom,” Eduardo Ribeiro, director of Jornalistas&Cia, a national publication for professional journalists, told IPI. The attacks against journalists that nevertheless do occur, he said, are “localized in general in regions far from the major centers, where bullets speak louder than words.”
Suzana Blass, the president of the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Union of Journalists and investigative editor for O Dia, placed Ribeiro’s comments into sharper focus. She emphasized, “We have no problem with press freedom here, in Rio. We can do our work.”
But, she said, “In the rural areas we have another situation”
The idea that journalist safety in Brazil differs heavily depending upon geographical location is underscored by statistics from neighboring São Paulo state, which covers an area slightly larger than Great Britain in the country’s southeast.
According to IPI’s Death Watch, São Paulo is the deadliest state in Brazil for the media, with 6 journalists killed over the past 10 years, including Marques Lopes in February of this year. But only one of those deaths occurred in the São Paulo metropolis itself, despite its accounting for half (about 20 million) of the state’s total population.
So far this year, IPI, the world’s oldest press-freedom organization, has registered 25 press-freedom violations in Brazil, with 18 of those taking place in the country’s interior. Considering only threats or instances of physical aggression, the ratio increases to 15 of 16. All three journalists threatened with death in 2012 work in interior regions.
IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie urged the Brazilian government to address the apparent discrepancies in the country’s professed commitment to press freedom.
“While we greatly admire Brazil’s rapid development and recognize an overall advancement in press freedom, we are concerned that the country’s regional media are being left behind,” she said.
“In interior and border areas where the federal government is absent or weakened, journalists are being placed in an increasingly vulnerable position.”
Violence against journalists figures prominently near the country’s outer edges, where difficult geography and sheer distance keep the power of the federal government at bay.
Radio journalist Valderlei Canuto Leandro, for example, was gunned down last September in Tabatinga, an Amazonian outpost situated on the tri-border point with Colombia and Peru, and widely reported to be a main entry point for cocaine into Brazil.
The consequences of the lack of federal authority are acutely visible in the southeastern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where three journalists have been killed over the past 10 years, according to IPI’s Death Watch.
Two of those deaths have come directly along the state’s largely lawless border with Paraguay, a major transit point for narcotic and weapons smuggling.
So blatant is the absence of authority that Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, is suspected of using the area as a headquarters for its alleged drug operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Vanessa Amin, president of the Mato Grosso do Sul Union of Journalists, told IPI that the press-freedom situation in her state would only improve “if the local [and] national authorities join their efforts on establishing better control, with the contribution of the government of Paraguay.”
Amin recently helped organize a public hearing in the Mato Grosso do Sul Legislative Assembly on the topic of crimes against journalists. She reported that military and law enforcement officials present expressed frustration about the effect of the porous border on impunity, while local journalists said insufficient equipment and human resources hindered police investigations into crimes against the media.
During the hearing, the public prosecutor of Amambai (close to Ponta Porã, where Paulo Rocaro was killed) recalled a 2004 case in which the mayor of Coronel Sapucaia was arrested for orchestrating the murder of journalist Samuel Romã.
The mayor, however, was granted habeas corpus and promptly fled across the border to Paraguay. Amin said the prosecutor proceeded to call for a partnership with the Paraguayan government “to prevent Brazilian criminals from being free and living normally in that country.”
Amin said that in her own remarks before the assembly she had emphasized that the causes of violence against the media in Mato Grosso do Sul were ultimately the same as at the national level.
In a January interview with the Millennium Institute, Judith Brito, president of Brazil’s National Newspaper Association, identified those causes as, in most cases, reports on the activities of organized crime or corruption at the municipal level.
Brito’s contention appears to be backed up by IPI statistics. Of the 7 journalists killed in Brazil since January 2011, 6 were regional reporters well known for their coverage of corruption or their criticism of local officials. (The 7th journalist, photographer Gelson Domingues, was hit by crossfire during a police anti-drug-trafficking operation in Rio de Janeiro.)
Blass, of the Rio de Janeiro Union of Journalists, explained that television and radio licenses in rural areas were generally only given to select families and politicians, who she said “are used to getting and maintaining their power.”
Echoing Ribeiro’s comments about the language of bullets, she noted further, “in places where the culture of violence wins, we don’t have full press freedom.”
Amin, in Mato Grosso do Sul, expressed similar sentiments, adding that newspaper owners who further their political interests through the media were partially responsible for instigating aggression against journalists.
In their reflections, both Blass and Amin also pointed to the fact that many local and regional media outlets depend upon public funds for survival. This arrangement, which is common across Latin America, allows municipal officials to control content through financial punishments and rewards.
In IPI’s view, the scope of the challenge facing Brazil’s regional media requires the active engagement of the country’s national government. To this extent, sources such as Ribeiro say Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appears to be far more interested in strengthening and reforming the press than her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who often had a turbulent relationship with the press.
In a speech she gave last year to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper in terms of circulation, Rousseff called a free and investigative press “indispensable” to a democracy. “A government must be able to coexist with its critics in the media”, she affirmed.
With regards to Rousseff’s comments, IPI Director Bethel McKenzie said: “We wholeheartedly welcome the president’s positive words on press freedom – but we hope she backs them up with concrete action, not only in Brazil’s highly visible urban centers but also in the country’s interior and border areas where the plight of journalists can all too easily be ignored.”
While Bethel McKenzie noted that the Rousseff administration had stepped up efforts to combat lawlessness at Brazil’s borders – the government is reportedly spending more than US$ 6 billion on a frontier monitoring scheme that includes spy planes and satellites – she emphasized that the government needed to take more specific action to improve journalist safety, including addressing the high levels of impunity in cases of crimes against the media.
IPI believes that a step in the right direction could come in the form of a bill (Projeto de Lei 1078/2011) being considered by Brazil’s Congress that would allow crimes against journalists to be prosecuted at the federal level.
The bill is being championed in Congress by Protógenes Queiroz, a former federal police officer well known for high-profile corruption investigations.
According to the Rio de Janeiro Journalists Union, which is supporting the measure, Queiroz says the bill would “foster more independence in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against journalist, without compromising local structures.”
Ribeiro, of Jornalistas&Cia, told IPI that ensuring that those involved in crimes against journalists are held responsible required sweeping change within Brazil’s court system. Impunity, he said, is a “much more a fruit of the situation of Brazilian justice, which unquestionably favors the rich and the powerful, rather than a possible orchestration in favor or against someone.” But he added that the power of money to influence judicial decisions was slowly ebbing, thanks in part to the investigative work of the media itself.
In the meantime, a cycle of aggression and self-censorship has become ingrained in Brazil’s frontier. Said Amin of Mato Grosso do Sul: “We know that there may be many more facts that involve violence against journalists and are kept in silence.”
That silence, however, has far-reaching consequences for Brazil, threatening the country’s attempts to make headway in promoting transparency and accountability. Journalists are often the principal (and only) bulwarks against corruption at the municipal level.
Ultimately, IPI believes that a Brazil in which two different realities exist – center and periphery – cannot sustain the tremendous advances that have won the world’s attention.
Continued progress requires a fully and equally informed society – something that can only come about if the government commits to defending the right of the media in every state and every municipality to fulfill its role as messenger to the people.
Scott Griffen, IPI Associate