A police station is seen in Niteroi, near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 24, 2020. Police are investigating cyberattacks and a break-in attempt targeting Repórter Brasil. (Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

Investigative outlet Repórter Brasil targeted with cyberattacks, threats, attempted break-in

Rio de Janeiro, January 13, 2021 — Brazilian authorities must swiftly and thoroughly investigate threats to Repórter Brasil, and hold the perpetrators to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

From January 6 to 12, unidentified internet users orchestrated a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on the website of Repórter Brasil, an investigative reporting and human rights organization, flooding the page with web traffic and forcing it offline multiple times, according to a statement by the outlet and its director, Leonardo Sakamoto, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Following the commencement of the attack January 6, and then again on January 8, the outlet’s general contact email account received anonymous messages demanding that Repórter Brasil remove all its reporting from 2003 to 2005, or else face further attacks, according to those sources.

In its statement, Repórter Brasil said that the organization “did not, and will not, comply with any attempt of illegal constraints.”

In a statement sent to CPJ today via email, Marco Antonio Dario, head of the 23rd Police Unit, which is investigating the cyberattacks, said that authorities have not yet identified any suspects.

“Brazilian authorities should investigate the cyberattacks and threats to Repórter Brasil, determine who is behind them, and bring those responsible to justice,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Independent investigative journalists play a vital role in documenting human rights violations in Brazil, and are often subject to harassment or violence. Brazilian authorities should step up and ensure they can report safely.”

In addition to the cyberattacks, at about 8 a.m. on January 7, witnesses told Sakamoto that they saw unidentified people attempt to enter Repórter Brasil’s São Paulo headquarters, he said. Sakamoto told CPJ that the break-in was unsuccessful, but did damage a gate at the building, and he did not know if it was related to the cyberattacks. The police statement emailed to CPJ said that officers were investigating whether the cyberattacks and break-in attempt were related.

Repórter Brasil’s coverage from 2003 to 2005 includes reports on labor conditions of rural workers in northeast Brazil, slavery in Pará state, a hydroelectric plant in Minas Gerais state, gold mining in Pará, labor conditions on sugar cane plantations, and human trafficking. The organization also maintains a database about modern slavery, from 1995 to 2014.

In 2015, Repórter Brasil suffered a coordinated cyberattack that removed content from its website and redirected some links to other pages, according to a report from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI).

In recent years, Sakamoto, who is also a columnist at the news website UOL, has faced online harassment and received several death threats, according to news reports.

In its statement, Repórter Brasil said that it is “constantly harassed by unhappy people who demand that reporting be removed.”

Sakamoto called the cyberattacks “an absurd attack against democracy and freedom of expression,” and said that he did not know who could be orchestrating the attacks.