Security patrol the venues for the Rio Olympics. Journalists covering the Games can report press freedom complaints to the International Olympic Committee. (AFP/David Gannon)
Security patrol the venues for the Rio Olympics. Journalists covering the Games can report press freedom complaints to the International Olympic Committee. (AFP/David Gannon)

IOC offers some protection but press at Rio Games should be wary of security risks

When the Rio Olympics open on Friday, the thousands of journalists covering it will have the added security of knowing a formal mechanism has been put in place to let them report any press freedom violations that take place during the Games. The creation of the reporting mechanism follows years of advocacy with the International Olympic Committee by CPJ and other rights groups to do more to hold host governments accountable for press-freedom abuses.

More on this issue

CPJ has documented press freedom violations around several Olympic Games, including the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the Beijing Games in 2008. Through the Olympic Committee reporting mechanism, all journalists will now be able to register complaints to the relevant authorities for resolution. In Brazil, the need for such a mechanism is all the more acute because journalists have been detained, harassed, and injured during previous sporting events hosted by the country. Last year CPJ research showed Brazil was the most deadly country in the Americas for journalists and, while the factors that led to the killings–usually in rural areas–are unlikely to come into play in Rio, the media should still take security precautions.

After demonstrations in Brazil during the 2013 Confederations Cup, causing tear gas to waft through stadiums and leading to reports that some teams were debating abandoning the tournament, government officials promised they would not suffer the same embarrassment during the 2014 World Cup. Police would respect democratic and peaceful protests, but they would come down hard and fast on violence, officials declared.

However, on the eve of the final game between Argentina and Germany, law enforcement officials pre-emptively arrested more than a dozen people and served them with temporary prison orders. Lawyers, journalists, and a teacher were among those detained, along with “evidence” including a funnel, a liquid that police said smelled like gasoline, newspapers, a banner, and even a vest with the word “PRESS” on it, according to reports.

Although they were detained on suspicion of forming a criminal gang, most were released soon after the final game. The charges have yet to be formally dropped, two years on all are free, Italo Aguiar, a human rights lawyer who represents seven of the accused, told CPJ.

‘It was a generic accusation,” Aguiar said. “It seems that the aim was to frighten them. When they expected a protest ahead of the final, people were jailed to frustrate them and make it public that the state would not react well if there was a big demonstration.”

Amnesty International called the detentions arbitrary and in June warned that Brazil has the same “ill-conceived security policies which led to a sharp increase in homicides and human rights violations by security forces since the 2014 World Cup.”

Brazil will be on security lock down, not just for protests but for potential terrorist attacks and other threats. About 85,000 security personnel from several different forces will be on hand, as well as security representatives from more than 100 competing countries, said Brazil’s sports minister, Leonardo Picciani. Police last week arrested 12 people who they said were Islamic State group sympathizers suspected of planning terrorist attacks around the Games, according to reports.

In the lead-up to the World Cup, the Brazilian government invested heavily in surveillance technology including drones, mobile scanners, and digital command centers, Slate reported. The extent of the surveillance capabilities in the run up to the Games was raised again in articles in Motherboard. In February, Brazil’s telecommunication regulator published part of a new regulation allowing the armed forces to use signal blockers during the Games, according to reports by Brazilian media outlets. While authorities told Motherboard that this technology is targeted at stopping drones, some journalists and news outlets have said that it sets a dangerous precedent.

Journalists have previously been caught in the crossfire of the Brazilian police’s heavy handed response to protests. A CNN producer and reporter were among those hurt on the eve of the World Cup’s opening match last year, when police used tear gas and stun grenades on protesters seven miles from the ground where the game took place.

“We were near a metro stop and police told all journalists to go on to [the] street and that was where the protesters were, about 500 yards away,” CNN correspondent Shasta Darlington told CPJ. “They said we had to stand in front of them and they shot us.”

Darlington said she was hit by fragments of a stun grenade and producer Barbara Arvanitidis was in hospital for almost a week after shrapnel cut into her left wrist, nearly severing ligaments. CNN filed a formal police report and the journalists were interviewed, but Darlington said they have not yet had a final response from authorities.

The lead up to the Rio Olympics has been turbulent politically for Brazil, with President Dilma Rousseff removed from office in May. The Senate is expected vote on whether to remove her definitively in late August, likely just after the end of Olympics which run until August 21. Demonstrators both for and against the suspended president have taken to the streets in the past year but the protests have been less tumultuous than those that took place during the Confederations Cup and World Cup.

The current protests are periodic and partisan, not directed at spending on venues or sporting areas or the lack of spending on social services. That, and the fact that the Olympics, which are based in one city and come with significantly more infrastructure improvements than the World Cup, have led many to predict a lower likelihood of unrest.

Activists plan to reach out to visitors to the city through pamphlets and debates, and small sit ins are more likely than marches of thousands, Felipe Altenfelder, one of the founders of Fora de Eixo, a cooperative of alternative and independent journalists, told CPJ.

“You’ll have people from 196 countries and we are looking to engage people outside the games themselves,” Altenfelder said. “The government knows the world is watching. They have 13 percent approval rating and they don’t want to create social confusion when the world is watching. They want to come as cross as the good guys.”

Darlington pointed out that while the situation remains unpredictable, the added security may mitigate some risks. “They are going to be working with so many different security forces I think there will be more controls and more checks and balances. They will have a lot more eyes on them,” she said.

CNN crews will all have bullet-proof vests, gas masks, helmets, and other security equipment and they are reevaluating their security needs due to the high incidence of crime in the city, Darlington said.

[Reporting from Rio de Janeiro.]