Police navigate the Itaquai River in the Javari Valley Indigenous territory in Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state, Brazil on June 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Edmar Barros)

CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering the Amazon basin

The June 2022 disappearance and killing of British journalist Dom Philips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira highlighted the safety risks journalists face while reporting from the Amazon region.

Phillips and Pereira went missing on the morning of June 5, 2022 while traveling by boat along the Itaquaí River, where Phillips was reporting on a book on the Amazon rainforest. An abundance of natural resources, limited policing, and corruption makes the Amazon rainforest a haven for criminals. Reporting on illegal activities can be fraught with danger.

CPJ has compiled safety guidance for journalists planning to report from the region, and best practices for protecting their physical and digital safety and the safety of their sources.

Pre-assignment planning

  • Speak to your doctor approximately six to eight weeks before you travel and discuss vaccinations and precautions required against tropical diseases that are endemic in the area you are visiting.
  • Malaria is prevalent throughout the Amazon, so it is worth speaking to a medical practitioner about the most appropriate malaria prophylaxis medication prior to departure. Note that many of these medicines need to be taken prior to departure in order to build up protection.
  • Ensure all your vaccinations are up to date. Yellow fever vaccination is a common requirement for entry into many countries.
  • Ensure that you have adequate insurance which covers rescue and evacuation in case of serious injury and illness.
  • Identify hospitals and health facilities where you’ll be reporting and ensure that they have adequate facilities to cover serious injury — such facilities are often located far from rural areas. Even if a facility appears close, consider how accessible the facility is, as it might be difficult to access.
Communications and digital safety:
  • Internet access is extremely limited. Consider downloading maps or printing any resources you might need prior to travel to remote areas as access to apps or online services will be non-existent. However, be mindful about carrying printed material that could reveal information about your sources or intentions while in the region as you may be detained at checkpoints or by the authorities.
  • Poor connectivity can also impact your ability to navigate if you are not prepared. Do not rely on regular mapping apps as they are not accurate enough for the region. Ensure that you have a good GPS navigation system and familiarize yourself with the user manual if you are not accustomed to it.
  • Create a thorough communications plan with your editors and, if applicable, with high-risk advisors on a realistic check-in procedure given the limited connectivity and phone signal. This can always be amended on the ground after deliberation. One option to mitigate this is to purchase a satellite phone with a data plan prior to departure. However, do remember that satellite communications require a clear line of sight to the sky and the jungle canopy can make them difficult to operate.
  • Whether flying in from abroad or traveling locally, prior to arrival in the region ensure that your point of contact/fixers in the Amazon know where and how to meet you.
  • Try to travel with new devices. If this is not possible, wipe your current device so that it only includes content relevant for your trip, including content on your phone, tablet, and laptop, as well as information stored in apps. Protect your devices with passwords and passcodes.Clear your browsing history on all of your devices in case of detention or arrest.
  • Back up your devices to an external hard drive or to the cloud, but avoid storing sensitive contacts there, and be mindful about where you do store this information as you may be detained at checkpoints or by the authorities. If your device is confiscated or anything is inserted into it, assume it is compromised and that any information has been copied.
  • Speak with local journalists to see what steps they take to protect their materials when traveling into and out of the Amazon.
  • Ensure that you purchase a power bank upon your arrival and before you set off for the Amazon. There is likely to be a lack of electricity while on your trip. Be aware that airlines will often not let you fly with power banks.
  • Be aware that sources may have limited access to phone and internet service if at all. This creates delays in contacting and following up with sources. Your sources may also have to travel to pick up cell phone or internet coverage in order to receive your call.
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest taken from a plane flying from the city of Manicore to Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil, on June 10, 2022. (AFP/Mauro Pimentel)

Positioning, location safety, and awareness

Entering Indigenous lands and territories:

Official authorization from governmental authorities is often mandatory for entering Indigenous land. If it is not required, consider it best practice to request permission from Indigenous communities. This indicates respect towards the community and could lead to assistance during your planning and reporting.

Travel and logistics:
  • Taking the time to prepare a reporting trip to the Amazon is paramount. Bear in mind that logistics and security are connected. Avoid cutting costs as it can lead to greater exposure.
  • Logistical planning and preparation, as well as in-depth risk assessments, must be done jointly between journalists and the outlets (editors, producers, security, etc.). For more information, see CPJ’s risk assessment form.
  • It is not advisable to rely on public transportation. It can be scarce, might not get you where you need to go, and it limits your autonomy in terms of timing and your ability to leave an unsafe situation.
  • When traveling by road, be aware that conditions can be extremely poor. Use of a 4×4 vehicle is strongly advised. Driving in these conditions requires experience; if you don’t have experience driving in these conditions, either conduct an “off-road” course in your home country prior to travel, or ensure you’re traveling with someone that has the required experience. The risk of car accidents is high, and you may be very far from a health facility.
  • Travel around remote areas is predominately by boat, and often for great distances. Ferries and riverboats are popular forms of travel but there have been incidents of overcrowding.
  • If hiring a boat, make sure it’s suitable for river travel and that firefighting/detection equipment, life jackets, and, if appropriate, life vessels are available. Also check on the experience of the skipper, and make sure that the licenses, documentation, and insurance are in order for both skipper and vessel. Ensure that your personal insurance covers you for working on boats. 
  • Inquire about fuel requirements and refill potential — it is not uncommon for skippers to miscalculate availability of fuel in the Amazon. If the vessel has cabins, check for carbon monoxide detectors (unlikely) or ensure the cabins are well ventilated.
  • Avoid traveling at night on the river, as sandbanks and river debris (such as giant logs) are hard to see after dark, even if your vessel has sonar.
  • In the region, criminals operating on the water has been an issue. Make sure there is a lookout at both the front and back of the vessel, including overnight. Discuss with the crew what they would do if criminals were to attempt to take the vessel. If accosted, it is advisable to hand over all valuables without a fight.
  • There is a lack of accommodation available and even with basic resources such as gas and supplies, accommodation can be very costly.
  • It is recommended to purchase extra fuel for all vehicle types being used, and to carry it with you if you’re covering longer distances. It may be difficult to purchase fuel in certain areas, so consider this in your planning phase.
  • Additionally, journalists interviewed by HP Risk Management for this guide said that reporters need to consider that those committing environmental crimes, including criminal organizations or large companies, have informants everywhere, and know when a journalist is in the area. It can also be difficult to go unnoticed in remote areas. For example, if the only access to a community is through a single river stream, when you pass on a boat those in the riverside will certainly see you and know where you are going.
  • Flooding can make certain areas inaccessible for long periods of time. This can be for weeks or months, so it’s vital to consider weather patterns for your duration of stay (wet season/dry season).
  • Changes to the weather can also affect your daily schedule and daily travel plans. During heavy rains it might not be possible to travel by boat and road conditions can be unworkable. It is advised that you do not deploy with a tight schedule when accessing more remote or challenging locations and remain flexible.
Importance of understanding the local context/power dynamics:

There are many groups with intersecting or opposing interests in the Javari Valley or other parts of the Amazon. There are also internal conflicts within these groups. These groups include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Communities living along the river
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Organized criminal groups transporting items such as fish, timber, animals, drugs, people, and weapons
  • Agribusiness
  • Mining
  • Environmental and/or Indigenous activists
  • Police/military

According to interviews with journalists who have reported from the region, threats during a reporting trip in the field are common. They can be “a whisper,” a “little message,” a warning, an unveiled threat, aggressive direct threats, having a gun pointed to your face, or someone openly saying you should leave immediately if you don’t want to die. How to interpret the seriousness of some of these situations and decide what to do is a challenge, and information about the local context is crucial.

Because of this, it is very important to understand in advance the dynamics of local, regional, and international criminal groups and networks operating in the area and how they are interconnected, as well as the connection with environmental crime. International border areas have their own specificities in terms of risks and how criminal networks operate. The triple border of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia is a route for international drug trafficking, which adds another layer of risk.

Traveling and communicating with at-risk individuals and sources

  • In order to access certain areas and interview locals on sensitive issues (like denouncing illegal mining or other environmental crimes), journalists should be accompanied by someone who knows the area well and is trusted by local communities. That person may be a local leader, activist or journalist, and there is a real possibility that they may have been threatened in the past. Consider if this is the case as you may be inadvertently exposed to attack or even become a target through association with the individual. If reporting on environmental crimes or violence against local communities, have a strategy before reaching out to the suspected perpetrators. Consider reaching out to them after you have left the city or the region, rather than while still vulnerable and exposed on the ground.
  • Journalists need to consider the security of their sources, particularly when reporting on environmental crimes. Local fixers and sources are often part of the communities affected by these crimes, and can be exposed to further violence when reporting is published.
  • Sources in the Amazon may be under both physical and digital surveillance, especially if they are working on issues related to the environment or denouncing organized crime. This can create security issues for both you and your source if you are arranging to meet. Think about who may be targeting your sources and what tech capacity, money, or authority they may have.
  • Before reaching out to a contact, make sure you have taken steps to secure your online data, accounts, and communications. See our Digital Security Kit for more information.
  • If your sources have access to the internet, including a smartphone, try to communicate with them using an end-to-end encrypted messaging service, such as WhatsApp. Learn how to turn on disappearing messages with your sources in CPJ’s guide to encrypted communications.
  • If contacting a source via phone or SMS be aware that your messages and calls will not be encrypted and can therefore be intercepted or legally requested by governments. 
  • If you must contact sources via an insecure channel, keep information to a minimum. Where possible, ask a fixer in the community to organize meetings for you. They should ideally speak to your sources face to face rather than over the phone. Your fixer should inform you of how and where to meet your sources in person.
  • Create pseudonyms when storing the contact details of sensitive sources and encourage them to do the same when saving your information to their devices. 
  • Follow best practices for receiving and storing documents. Be aware that you will likely have limited access to the internet while on your trip which will affect how you receive, send, and store documents. 

Legal threats are a concern for journalists operating in the Amazon, particularly those covering environmental crimes.

  • If reporting on environmental crimes, it’s possible you could face lawsuits from powerful companies. Anything you’re publishing needs to be legally airtight and journalists should expect that companies/individuals that are mentioned in their reporting might look to sue them.
  • If reporting on environmental crimes, seeking legal advice is recommended from the early stages of assignment preparation, not only to minimize risks of lawsuits after publishing, but also to prevent other legal risks during the reporting trip.
  • Journalists have reported problems while photographing private property and for using drones. Be aware of existing legislation, especially regulating the use of drones, to avoid legal issues in the field.

Clothing and equipment

The Amazon rainforest can be an unforgiving environment to operate in. The jungle is humid, sticky, and full of animals, big and small, that can cause serious concern. If you are traveling a long distance and duration, your kit may need to be kept at a minimum, so pack light. It is good practice to have two sets of “wet” clothes and one set of “dry.” After a day in the jungle, change into your dry clothes at night and re-wear your wet clothes the following day.

Day Pack:

It’s essential to pack light when mobile around the jungle. Ensure you have a suitable, comfortable day pack for your travels and purchase multiple sized “dry bags” to store your kit in as the contents will get wet.

Ideally it should have:
  • An internal zipped compartment for essential documents, keys, phone/satellite phone, GPS device (all individually stored in dry bags)
  • An outer zipped compartment for insect repellent, sunscreen, and wet wipes/tissues 
  • A main compartment
  • A side pocket for your water bottle (or an internal pocked for a hydration bladder)
  • Another easily accessible compartment for your personal medical kit. Ensure you have a good amount of water purification tablets with you in case you run out of water and need to use the water from local sources. One tablet usually purifies one liter of water. Ensure you allow the required time for it to protect against water-borne diseases.
  • A travel hat with a brim and chin strap
  • Long shirts and pants. It is advisable to wear lightweight, quick drying material as it will be hot and you get wet, and remain wet, while in the jungle
  • Hiking boots with drainage holes to allow water to pour away. Do not use Gore-Tex boots as they will get wet and will take a long time to dry out if at all
  • Hiking socks or reinforced cotton socks.
  • Insect repellent. Depending on your pack and accommodations, you can also bring a mosquito net with you to protect yourself while you sleep. You can buy single or double nets that are hung from the ceiling
  • A hammock

For more information on physical, digital, and psychosocial safety resources for journalists, please visit CPJ’s Emergencies page.