An unidentified arsonist is seen setting fire to the home of editor José Antônio Arantes and the Folha da Região newspaper in Olímpia, Brazil, on March 17, 2021. (Photo: José Antônio Arantes)

Brazilian journalist’s home, newspaper office targeted in arson attack

Rio de Janeiro, March 23, 2021 – Brazilian authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate the arson attack on the Folha da Região newspaper and the home of editor José Antônio Arantes, and ensure the safety of Arantes, his family, and the outlet’s staff, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

At 4:19 a.m. on March 17, in the city of Olímpia, in the southeastern state of São Paulo, an unidentified attacker set fire to a building that houses both the headquarters of Folha da Região and Arantes’ home, according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Video footage from a neighbor’s security camera shows a man arriving on a motorcycle, pouring a liquid onto the separate entrances of the newspaper and Arantes’ home, and setting them on fire. The journalist and his family were able to escape the flames without severe injuries, he said.

Arantes is the founder and editor of Folha da Região, a weekly print newspaper and news website that covers general news in São Paulo state, and he hosts the daily radio show “Cidade em Destaque” on community broadcaster Rádio Cidade 98.7 FM and through Folha da Região’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, he told CPJ.

In the days before the attack, Arantes had received insulting messages and comments on the newspaper’s and Rádio Cidade’s social media platforms in response to his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and his support for social distancing and other measures to contain the spread of the virus in Olímpia, and commenters called on advertisers to break ties with his program over that coverage, he said.

“It is fortunate that nobody was seriously injured in the arson attack on José Antônio Arantes’ home and newspaper headquarters, but that good luck does not make this violent attempt at censorship any less alarming,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “As COVID-19 rages across Brazil, it is more vital than ever that journalists like Arantes are able to freely and safely report on issues affecting public health and ensure the public’s access to information.”

Arantes told CPJ that he and his wife woke up at about 4:20 a.m., when he heard his dogs barking and smelled smoke, and they found their front door in flames. He and his wife put out the fire and left the house with their nine-year-old granddaughter, where they found the front door of the newspaper headquarters also in flames, and also put that out. Arantes said he called the local fire department immediately, but no firefighters arrived until about 8 a.m.

Arantes told CPJ that his wife suffered minor burns on her arm and that he and his granddaughter were not injured, adding, “We could have died, asphyxiated. We were lucky that the fire did not spread so fast and that we woke up.”

He also noted that, in the security video, the attacker is not seen attempting to break into the office or his home.

“He came with the sole intention of setting fire to the newspaper headquarters and my house,” Arantes said. He said he fears for his safety and that of his family, and that he has never seen an attack like this against a journalist in Olímpia.

The Civil Police Unit in Olímpia has opened an investigation into the case, requested a forensic analysis of the scene, and is searching for additional images and witnesses, according to a statement sent to CPJ via email by Gabriela Amaral, an employee in the press office of the São Paulo State Secretary of Public Security.

A second statement, also sent to CPJ via email by the press office, noted that investigators are not “ruling out any hypothesis” for the motive in the attack.  

Two days before the attack, on his 11 a.m. radio show, which Arantes hosts with his daughter, Arantes reported on a local protest of more than 100 people, many without masks, demanding that local businesses remain open despite the national surge in COVID-19 deaths.  

During and following that broadcast, “a new harassing campaign started with insulting messages [posted on the outlet’s social media platforms], undermining the newspaper’s work, and calling on people to stop advertising with us,” he told CPJ.

Some of the messages posted on Folha da Região and Rádio Cidade’s online accounts, which CPJ reviewed, said “people need to stop advertising on this radio [station],” and called the journalist and the outlets “hypocrites” and “communists, who are Satan’s servants in the service of hell.”

Arantes told CPJ that, on the day before the arson attack, he received a call from Folha da Região’s website service provider informing him of a possible orchestrated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on the outlet’s website, in which attackers flood the page with web traffic and slow down users’ access to the site.

“Since March of last year, I have been defending science, vaccines, and protective measures. I host a radio show where I seek to clear up doubts about the pandemic. I have been studying this all year so I can inform our listeners,” Arantes told CPJ.