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In Brazil, awakening 'Rodrigo Neto in each of us'

Rodrigo Neto was killed after investigating possible police involvement in a series of local murders. (Diário Popular)

One month after their colleague Rodrigo Neto was gunned down on the street after eating at a popular outdoor barbecue restaurant, the journalists of Vale do Aço, Brazil, were indignant. Denouncing a sluggish investigation and the possibility of police involvement in the murder, they strapped black bands to their wrists in a sign of solidarity, put on T-shirts bearing Neto's name, and took to the streets to demand justice. Six days later, Walgney Assis Carvalho, a photographer who claimed to have knowledge of the crime, was shot twice in the back by a masked assassin as he sat at a fish restaurant. The journalists of Vale do Aço are still indignant, but now they are terrified.

The events of the past seven weeks in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais encapsulate what is happening throughout Brazil, a country most often portrayed as a rare success story, both rising economic power and inclusive democracy. The murder of two journalists, with hints of police involvement, in a period of weeks is shocking to those who look to Brazil as a model for the region. Yet CPJ's 2013 Impunity Index, published today, found that violence against the press and impunity for these crimes has soared in recent years in Brazil. Ten journalists have been murdered since 2010 with no convictions in any of the cases. The vast majority of the victims covered politics or corruption, and worked outside of the country's urban centers.

Getting Away With Murder
CPJ's 2013 Impunity Index:
Brazil ranks 10th worst in world

Brazil has one of the most vibrant and talented investigative press corps in the Americas. Unlike their colleagues in other parts of the region, where organized crime has terrorized the media into silence, the journalists in Vale do Aço are shaken but not cowed. As Breno Brandão, a local journalist and political aide, told reporters: "Those who thought they were silencing Rodrigo Neto are going to realize that, on the contrary, they have given birth to a Rodrigo Neto inside each one of us."

Neto, 38, was an earnest, hard-working reporter who had dreamed of being a police officer, according to his colleagues at the daily Jornal Vale do Aço, where he had just started working a week before his death, and at Rádio Vanguarda, where he was the longtime host of the show "Plantão Policial" (Police Shift). His aggressive coverage of murder cases in which police were suspected of involvement had made him the target of threats over the years, his friend and colleague, Fernando Benedito Jr. said. In an interview with Jornal Vale do Aço, Beatriz de Oliveira Faria, his widow and the mother of his 6-year-old son, described him as always alert and often anxious, refusing to share details of work with his family out of concern for their safety.

Determined that Neto's own murder not remain unsolved like the crimes he investigated, a group of local journalists, led by Anna Sylvia Rodrigues and Benedito, both of the daily Diário Popular, founded the Rodrigo Neto Committee. The committee was formed to "demonstrate to society that the press is united and we will not disband until we get an answer for this crime. We're mirroring the work that Rodrigo himself did: conducting research and always remembering, as a way to combat impunity," according to Rodrigues. The committee is both investigating Neto's murder and continuing the work he left behind by publishing a report each week on one of his unfinished cases.

The Rodrigo Neto Committee follows in the footsteps of the Chauncey Bailey Project in the United States, and the Manizales Project in Colombia, both of which were formed in similar circumstances by reporters seeking justice for their slain colleagues. In the case of Bailey, an editor in Oakland, Calif., the grass-roots movement successfully pushed authorities to try and convict the masterminds in the killing after the initial investigation was marked by numerous irregularities. In Colombia, the newsweekly Semana led a collaborative effort to investigate murders and threats against journalists and to continue the work that had motivated the acts of retaliation.

The need to protect itself has been doubly acute for the Vale do Aço press corps since April 14, when Carvalho became the second Jornal Vale do Aço journalist to be murdered in five weeks. A garrulous crime photographer, Carvalho, 43, delighted in beating everyone to a crime scene and worked in a freelance capacity for both the press and the police, his colleagues said. Carvalho was not shy when it came to the murder of his co-worker Neto --he had been telling people he knew who had committed it, according to Durval Ângelo, a state congressman and president of the state assembly's human rights commission. "Like Rodrigo," Benedito wrote CPJ in an email, "he knew too much."

After weeks of cinematic twists and turns, fear and uncertainty have crept into the thinking of journalists in Vale do Aço. "No one knows who is next. ... We all feel we are in the crosshairs of the assassins," the committee said in a statement. One local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said to CPJ: "This area is too developed, too industrialized, to turn into a Wild West like this." Benedito, writing to inform CPJ of Carvalho's murder, said simply: "We no longer know what to do." Headlines have blared out several panicked and unsubstantiated reports of journalists being named to hit lists, threatened by a powerful state police death squad.

National media figures are starting to arrive in Vale do Aço. Feeling the pressure, the Minas Gerais state police chief Cylton Brandão announced a shuffling of law enforcement leadership and, while saying police couldn't yet confirm that the two journalist murders were linked, he acknowledged the possibility of police involvement. In a press conference, he told reporters: "Journalists and society can be assured that we will give a full response to these cases. ... We defend press freedom, we defend the free exercise of the profession. Society and, in particular, the police, must always be able to count on a free and democratic press."

Last week, authorities announced that several police officers had been placed in preventative detention in connection with one of the most notorious cases that Rodrigo, and later the committee, had been investigating: the disappearance and murder of four adolescents in 2011. While it was unclear if and how exactly the suspects had any links to the Neto and Carvalho murders, local journalists interpreted the news as a hopeful sign that the impunity protecting criminal police officers might be slipping away.

It's still debatable whether local authorities can be relied upon to seriously investigate their own. A local journalist who asked to remain anonymous, said she believed only outside investigators would be able to "unravel the mystery that has been hovering over Vale do Aço for years." A bill under preliminary debate in the National Congress would do just that, effectively giving federal jurisdiction to all crimes committed against journalists. If passed, the country would be following in the footsteps of Mexico, which just last week achieved a legislative landmark when it approved enabling legislation for a constitutional amendment that makes all crimes against freedom of expression a federal offense. In Mexico, where local governments are frequently corrupt and consumed by organized crime, the measure was viewed as the only hope for a besieged press.

In the meantime, the Rodrigo Neto Committee is doing its best to ensure the case does not become one more example of the country's impunity crisis. At the time of his death, according to Ângelo, Neto was working on a book about several murders that may have had police involvement, a work he planned to title "The Perfect Crimes." Referencing that work, Neto's brother, a police officer himself, told reporters after the journalist's funeral that "there is no such thing as a perfect crime. There is only an unsolved one."

May 2, 2013 4:00 PM ET | | Also in Português, Español

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