The Rocinha neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Such neighborhoods, or favelas, have been risky for reporters. (AP/Felipe Dana)
The Rocinha neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Such neighborhoods, or favelas, have been risky for reporters. (AP/Felipe Dana)

Bossa Nova’s home and Olympics host is risky for press

The jagged mountains ringing Rio de Janeiro descend to a temperate valley with two storied beaches on the Atlantic. Here is the city that gave the world a new, eclectic musical beat with the Bossa Nova, the South American jewel that will host the summer Olympic Games in 2016. Yet Rio has also been the setting for violence against journalists, a trend that is on the upswing again throughout this nation. 

Ten years ago I came to Rio for CPJ after the abduction, torture, and summary execution of the TV Globo journalist Tim Lopes, a 51-year-old family man. A conference organized by Rosental Calmon Alves, the Brazilian director of the Knight Center for the Americas, and populated by the country’s largest journalist federation, led to the formation of ABRAJI, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists.

In response to Lopes’ murder, ABRAJI took its lead from the U.S. group IRE or Investigative Reporters and Editors. Back in 1976, one of IRE’s founding members, Don Bolles, was murdered by a car bomb in Phoenix, Ariz. In response his colleagues flooded Phoenix with more investigative reporters than the city’s local mobsters could have ever imagined. Their reporting helped bring the murderers of the 47-year-old journalist, husband, and father to justice.

The case set a powerful example, and one that ABRAJI intended to emulate. In 2005, reporting by Lopes’ colleagues in ABRAJI, combined with pressure from TV Globo, helped lead to a conviction and 28-year prison sentence against a young drug lord who, for a time, ruled a favela, or neighborhood, cut into the steep hillsides around Rio. It was a good ending to an otherwise tragic story.

But it did not last. In 2008, two journalists and their driver were reporting undercover, as Lopes had been doing, in another Rio favela when they were abducted and tortured. A paramilitary group with links to local police was suspected of being behind the attack.

Unfortunately today Brazil is leading the region in journalist murders. Global Journalist Security, the private consulting and training firm that I run in addition to advising CPJ on journalist security matters part-time, prepared a tactical analysis of attacks on Brazilian journalists.

At least 23 journalists have been killed in Brazil in direct relation to their work over the past 20 years, and all but one was murdered. Professional killers carried out more than half of the assassinations, I told an audience including many journalism students at an ABRAJI panel this week in São Paulo. Most murdered journalists were shot dead near either their homes or offices, or as they were commuting between them. About one-third were threatened before they were slain. Two journalists were abducted and held for different lengths of time before being executed.

The past year and a half has been even worse. This week, right before the start of the ABRAJI conference, a motorcycle gunman shot and killed a radio reporter who hosted a sports program, Valério Luiz de Oliveira, outside his offices in the western city of Goiânia. Nine journalists have been killed in Brazil over just the past 19 months, and, while CPJ continues to investigative the motives, at least four were clearly murdered in reprisal for their work.

The murders of journalists have increased–as have those of environmental activists, at an even higher rate–despite an overall decline in homicides in Brazilian cities.

Many of the recent journalist murders have taken place in the northeast, which is among the country’s poorest regions. Here and elsewhere, the hiring of professional killers is common: they seem to conduct surveillance of journalists before murdering them near their homes or offices to quickly flee the scene.

Nor do the assassins seem worried about witnesses. One journalist was murdered at his favorite restaurant by a man who calmly walked in, shot him four times at close range, and then left with an accomplice on a motorcycle. In another case, a man walked into a bar, went to the bathroom, and then shot a journalist six times.

It’s a sad story for such a vibrant nation, an emerging economic power, the world’s fourth largest democracy, and the fifth most populous nation. But, as I told the ABRAJI audience, Brazil also suffers the dishonor of landing on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered regularly and the killers go free.

Is there a solution? More than a few students asked.

Brazilian journalists need specialized training to confront these threats. And ABRAJI, TV Globo, and individual journalists within the press community must collective take action to get both civil society and the government on all levels to take notice. If Brazil wants to take its spot as an international leader, I added, it must bring the murderers of journalists and others to justice.

(Reporting from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo)