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A protester takes cover as police throw tear gas during protests in August over the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Journalists have been caught in the crossfire of Brazil's political unrest. (AP/Andre Penner)

In Brazil, journalists face injury from violent protests and accusations of bias

By Andrew Downie/CPJ Brazil Correspondent on September 20, 2016 4:16 PM ET

Felipe Souza was covering an anti-government protest in São Paulo earlier this month when a line of riot police advanced toward him.

Souza was facing the officers and wearing a helmet, a gas mask (to protect him from tear gas) and a bullet-proof vest that identified him as a reporter for BBC Brasil. As the troops got closer, he stood with his back to a wall and raised his hands to show he was unarmed and unthreatening.

The gesture was futile.

" 'Get out of the way! Move! Move!' at least four officers said before hitting me with their batons on my right forearm, my left hand, my right shoulder, my chest, and my right leg," Souza recounted in a piece for the BBC Brasil website. "One of them called me garbage."

Souza escaped without serious injury but the incident is indicative of the increasing dangers faced by journalists covering Brazil's tumultuous political and social movements.

The country has faced turmoil since 2013, when millions took to the streets to protest issues including rising bus fares, extravagant spending on World Cup stadiums, and a lack of investment in health, education, and social services.

In August President Dilma Rousseff, who was elected for a first term in 2010 and re-elected four years later, was removed from office after a drawn-out impeachment process that many criticized as illegitimate.

Protesters both for and against her impeachment have taken to the streets to show their support or opposition and journalists--particularly at demonstrations in support of her presidency and against her successor Michel Temer--have come under fire on a regular basis.

Since those first demonstrations in May 2013, at least 293 journalists, bloggers, and photographers have been victims of aggression while covering street protests, according to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI).

The attacks documented by the association include cases of reporters being on the receiving end of tear gas and rubber bullets, being beaten in truncheon attacks, and harassed by protesters. In some cases, the police seized equipment and erased information on cell phones or cameras.

Almost half of the incidents took place in Brazil's biggest city São Paulo and "more than half of those (62%) were deliberate," the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism said. "In other words, the professional had identified him or herself as a journalist at work. Nevertheless, they were still detained or victimized." The police were responsible for 71 percent of the incidents but many also came from demonstrators angry at perceived press bias, and there has been a worrying uptick in attacks carried out by protesters.

Between January and September this year, demonstrators were responsible for 40 percent of all attacks against the press, according to the ombudsman at the Folha de S.Paulo, a newspaper whose main headquarters has come under attack from protesters.

Police said they were responding to vandals, according to reports.

Folha's newsroom editor did not respond to repeated requests for an interview and neither did officials with TV Globo, the television arm of Brazil's biggest media empire whose reporters are often targeted because of its perceived anti-Workers' Party stance.

However, editors at other publications said they have had to rethink how to deploy their reporters.

"We have difficulties covering the protests," said Diego Escosteguy, the unabashedly anti-Rousseff editor-in-chief of weekly newsmagazine Época. "Our first concern is the safety of the reporters and when there is a protest there is a debate about how to get our reporters to them safely. I can't go. I've had concrete threats that if I go to a demonstration against Temer or for Dilma then I'll get beaten up. I would like to hear people but I can't, and that's a sign of how toxic things have become." He added that he had received threatening calls, as well as threatening messages on social media.

The physical dangers--organizations including the BBC and Reuters put all their reporters through hostile environment training--have been accompanied by a sharpening of discourse at both ends of the political spectrum. Public attitudes hardened in the lead up to Rousseff's ouster and journalists say their reporting is coming under the microscope.

"I have worked in a lot of countries that are extremely polarized or where people have extreme opinions--including Israel, Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico--and it has taken me by surprise here because Brazil doesn't have a history of this kind of political tension," NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro told CPJ over the phone from her home in Rio de Janeiro. "There is a concerted campaign from people both inside and outside the media to give this a narrative, their narrative."

The situation is harder for local reporters who face pressure not just from editors and readers but also from friends and family. Amplified on social media, the scrutiny has gone way beyond the normal, long-respected boundaries.

"We are always being accused of being for the left or for the right or of hiding something," Caio Quero, the executive editor of BBC Brasil, told CPJ. "It is daily occurrence and it's such that even things that have nothing to do with politics, people are now relating them to politics. If we write about women's rights or indigenous rights or racism we are called communists. And if we write about pension or labor reform or budget cuts we are accused of being capitalists or agents of British imperialism."

The media have also been accused of fomenting the divide.

Popular news magazines such as Veja and Isto É came out in favor of impeachment but most publications have been less partisan. The situation was summarized by Glenn Greenwald, the Rio-based journalist and co-founder of The Intercept, who tweeted that there was a reason to denounce "Brazil's oligarch-owned media as [a] threat to free press."

In an email response to CPJ's questions, Greenwald, who recently announced the launch of a Brazilian edition of The Intercept, said, "Impeachment was a complex question with nuanced considerations, but the Brazilian media alternated between covering it as a Manichean drama and agitating for it to happen." Greenwald added, "They thus played a large role in this hardening and polarization."

It would be hard to predict what will happen next in Brazil but there is a sense that while the institutional upheaval is complete, respite for the media may be fleeting. Protests against Temer are likely to continue and last week's indictment of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on corruption charges has inflamed passions further.

"I think that it will calm down a bit in the next few months but proposed reforms are not popular and when they are on the table I think we will see a reaction from the unions and social movements," said the BBC's Quero. "I think we are the end of one process and the start of another."

[Reporting from São Paulo]

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The sixteenth paragraph of this blog has been updated to reflect that Diego Escosteguy is the editor-in-chief of Época.]


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