Violence and impunity: Journalism in Brazil leading up to the World Cup

Reuters, Andre Mourao, Agencia O Dia.
Friday, May 30, 2014

By Alexandra Theodorakidis

When the FIFA World Cup begins this June, it is expected that 600,000 foreign soccer fans will descend on Brazil, including 18,000 journalists accredited to cover the event. Brazil is known for its love of soccer, but mass protests have swept across the country over the last year, with demonstrators arguing that the money spent on the World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games would have been better spent on social infrastructure.

According to the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), 114 journalists were injured while covering protests in 2013. With 321 violent attacks on media workers since 2009, Brazil is now one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the Western Hemisphere.

While censorship and outdated Internet laws threaten journalistic integrity in Brazil, impunity remains one of the biggest concerns for journalists operating in the country. Although charges were laid in three cases of murdered journalists in 2013, many more have gone without justice. Violence against journalists continues to increase due to a lack of criminal responsibility. As a result, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Brazil 11th out of 13 countries featured on its 2014 Global Impunity Index.

As the fifth most-populous country in the world, Brazil is one of the largest emerging economic powers and the world’s fourth largest democracy. However, democracy is still a relatively recent concept in the country, as the 21-year military dictatorship only ended in 1985. According to a survey conducted annually since 1989, this year marked the first time that the number of Brazilians who believe democracy is the best form of government rose to above 60%. Concepts that come with democracy, such as press freedom and protection of media workers are also relatively new in many parts of Brazil, especially the interior where media are primarily controlled by mayors and governors of the states. These factors place Brazil at 111 out of 180 countries on Reporter’s Without Borders’ (RSF’s) World Press Freedom Index.

During protests against the upcoming World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, journalists have been attacked and detained by police and harassed by protesters. In February 2014, cameraman Santiago Ilídio Andrade was hit in the head by a flare while covering demonstrations; he later died of his injuries.

In its annual report on crimes against freedom of expression, Article 19 recorded a total of 29 violations against journalists in 2013, including four murders and eight murder attempts. Paula Martins, Director of Article 19 South America has said, “[T]his is not only extremely concerning but is today unacceptable in a democratic country like Brazil…The Brazilian authorities, including government, courts and legislature across the federal system must take effective measures to avoid a similar level of violations in 2014.”

Unfortunately, this year has not seen any sign of an end to the violence against media workers. In addition to Andrade, newspaper owner Pedro Palma, whose paper was known for criticizing corruption in the local government, was gunned down in mid-February. Those responsible for Palma’s death have not yet been arrested. More recently, as reporters were covering the forced evictions of residents from the Telerj Favela in Rio on April 11, journalist Bruno Amorim was physically threatened by a police officer, who accused Amorim of inciting violence through his reports. Protesters also set fire to several marked media vehicles.

With protests expected to continue during the World Cup and through to the Olympics, it seems reasonable to expect that many foreign journalists in Brazil to cover the events will also be reporting on the unrest and any protests or riots that may occur. Well aware of the heavy media scrutiny the country will be facing over the coming weeks during the World Cup, the Brazilian government has made some attempts to improve its press freedom record.

A working group has been established to discuss violations and threats against journalists, following up on judicial investigations and establishing a monitoring system that will effectively track free press violations. Article 19, a member of the working group, has suggested the creation of a federal program that would offer protection to threatened journalists. The country has had a similar program in place for the protection of human rights defenders since 2004, which provides assistance such as relocation and police protection. The Brazilian Department of Justice held a workshop at the end of March to train media workers on how to safely cover protests, and what equipment they should carry to protect themselves. A guide is also being developed not only for media professionals but for security forces such as police officers, outlining how to deal with reporters. However, as this guide is not legally binding, the state military police are not required to follow it.

If recent events are any indication, many journalists will continue to be targeted by both police and protesters. The Brazilian government needs to take urgent steps to ensure the protection of media workers in dangerous situations. CPJ has recommended that the Brazilian authorities develop and implement procedures for law enforcement agencies to protect journalists covering demonstrations in the lead up to the World Cup without fear of retaliation.

Although proper training for journalists working in dangerous situations is crucial, violent attacks against the press will continue unless the Brazilian authorities make a concentrated effort to end impunity. “As the number of media killings has risen, the will or the ability to bring those responsible to justice appears to be lagging,” says International Press Institute (IPI) Deputy Director Anthony Mills. “This impunity is fueling a cycle of violence against the few reporters brave enough to address delicate topics such as drug smuggling and local corruption.”

As an important preliminary step, the Brazilian media have increased their coverage of attacks on journalists and in some cases are actively fighting for stronger press freedom and justice for their murdered colleagues.

In the case of Andrade, the cameraman killed earlier this year, it is a positive sign that arrests have been made and charges have been laid against two men responsible for firing the flare that killed him. With international attention soon to be focused on Brazil, the government has recognized that changes need to be made. It will likely be a slow process to break the cycle of impunity, but it is a problem this emerging democracy cannot afford to ignore.

Alexandra Theodorakidis is CJFE’s Communications and Publications Assistant.