Journalist murdered on eve of scheduled testimony in defamation case

New York, August 27, 2001—In a letter sent today to Rio de Janeiro State attorney general Francesco Conte, CPJ expressed deep concern about the August 16 murder of journalist Mário Coelho de Almeida Filho and requested more information about the case.

Coelho was killed one day before he was to testify in a criminal defamation lawsuit.

In what appears to be a premeditated murder, the 42-year-old Coelho was killed by a gunman outside his house in the municipality of Magé, about 50 km (30 miles) from Rio de Janeiro, according to local press reports.

At around 6 p.m., as Coelho was parking his car in his garage, the gunman, who had been drinking beer in a nearby bakery, emerged and started shooting at him with a 45-caliber handgun.

The first shot hit Coelho’s car window. The journalist left his car and ran away, but the gunman chased him and caught up with him in an abandoned lot. He shot Coelho at least three times and then fled the scene in his own vehicle, according to witnesses interviewed by the Brazilian daily O Globo.

Coelho was the administrative editor and publisher of A Verdade, a six-page paper that was published three times a month and circulated in Magé. A Verdade often criticized local politicians for alleged corruption and other irregularities.

In recent months, Magé mayor Narriman Zito, who belongs to the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), had been a frequent target of Coelho’s muckraking.

On August 17, Coelho was scheduled to testify in relation to a criminal defamation lawsuit brought against him by Zito and her husband José Camilo Zito dos Santos, PMDB mayor of the nearby municipality of Duque de Caxias. The couple filed their lawsuit after A Verdade printed the minutes of a Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly session during which Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) assemblywoman Núbia Cozzolino, a political rival of Narriman Zito, insinuated that Zito was having an affair with one of her security guards.

O Globo quoted Coelho’s father as saying that his son had received several phone threats five months ago and had written about them in A Verdade. Although Coelho apparently knew the identity of the caller(s), he did not reveal this information in the newspaper. The Magé police official in charge of the murder investigation believes that it was a contract killing, O Globo reported. Coelho’s father told O Globo that he suspected a political motivation.

At least four Brazilian journalists have been killed because of their work since 1996, according to CPJ research.