Climate change, clean energy, trade, defense and technology were among the issues on the agenda of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during her trip to the United States this week and her meeting with President Barack Obama. But there is one particular issue that has not received much attention in international forums: the unprecedented level of lethal violence against the Brazilian press in recent years.
Despite Brazil’s image as a regional political and economic leader and its position as the host of last year’s FIFA World Cup and next year’s Summer Olympic Games, the country has become one of the most dangerous in the world for the press. According to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least fourteen journalists have been killed in direct reprisal for their work since Rousseff came to power in January 2011, while six others were murdered in unclear circumstances. This places Brazil as the 11th deadliest country in the world for the press, according to CPJ research, ranking just one below Afghanistan. Two journalists were killed in less than one week in May with levels of brutality—one was decapitated and the other tortured and mutilated—previously unheard of in the country.
Compounding the violence has been widespread impunity. Brazil has ranked for four consecutive years on CPJ’s index of countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go unpunished. The previously sluggish justice system has made significant strides in the past two years, achieving a record of at least six convictions in journalist murder cases. While this is an encouraging sign, in all but one of these cases, the chain of accountability has ended with the hit men.
The faltering justice in these cases may be related to the victims’ lack of national prominence—most were provincial journalists outside of major urban centers—and the nature of what and whom they were investigating when they were killed. Fifty eight percent of journalists murdered in Brazil were reporting on corruption and in fifty two percent of the cases the suspected perpetrators are government officials, according to CPJ research.
The case of reporter Rodrigo Neto, who was gunned down in 2013 by a man on the back of a motorcycle in Minas Gerais state, is emblematic of this phenomenon. Neto was the host of the show “Plantão Policial” (Police Shift) on Rádio Vanguarda and had recently begun working as a reporter at the daily Vale do Aço. He had received threats for years in relation to his reporting on criminal groups operating within the local police force who were suspected of having been involved in local murders, including the disappearance and murder of four teenagers in 2011, according to local journalists. Six days after his death, Walgney Assis Carvalho, a crime-beat photographer who told people he knew who had killed Neto, was shot in the back by a masked gunman as he sat at a fish restaurant. “This area is too developed, too industrialized, to turn into a Wild West like this,” a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told CPJ at the time.
Last week, the accused gunman was sentenced to 16 years in prison for killing Neto. He is set to face trial for the murder of Carvalho this August. In August 2014, a former police officer was sentenced to 12 years in prison for participating in the planning of Neto’s murder, according to news reports. But no mastermind has been charged in either case. As Marcelo Moreira, editor-in-chief of RJTV, TV Globo’s local television news station told CPJ last year: “If we really want threats to stop, we have to get the big guys.”
The rising anti-press violence and impunity for these crimes has sparked concern among domestic and international human rights groups. In addition to the killings, dozens of attacks—including arbitrary detentions, beatings and harassment against reporters covering street protests in large urban centers before the World Cup—have occurred. Fortunately they have also received extensive news coverage and sparked a national debate about journalists’ safety.
The attention prompted the Brazilian government to take action, creating a working group in late 2012 tasked with investigating attacks on the press and issuing recommendations to the federal government. Action, though, has been lacking.
In a meeting with a CPJ delegation in May 2014 to discuss the climate for press freedom, President Rousseff told CPJ her administration was committed to pursuing a goal of “zero impunity” in journalists’ murders. Rousseff said her administration would push to implement a mechanism to protect journalists under imminent risk and support legislative efforts that would allow crimes against free expression to fall under federal jurisdiction. Both of these measures would be useful in a case like that of Neto, who had received threats before his death and whose murder is being investigated and tried in the same state where he had challenged local authorities.
More than a year later, these efforts have stalled. While deadly violence against the press continues to rise, the presidential election last October put concrete measures on hold and hindered legislative action. In a contested runoff election, Rousseff won, but since then her government has faced massive anti-government protests and her approval ratings have plummeted. In this context, the president’s promises have slipped from view, though she continues to publicly affirm her commitment to press freedom.
In the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games, the President will have to grapple with many problems, including a sluggish economy, the unfolding corruption scandal within the state oil company and the prospect of renewed protests like those that erupted around the 2014 World Cup.
Precisely at those times, Brazil needs a vibrant, independent press that can freely report on these matters and carry out its work without fear of reprisal. In the next year, the world’s fourth-largest democracy will receive a flood of tourists and find itself under the spotlight of international media attention. Before that occurs, President Rousseff needs to go beyond rhetoric and make good on her promise to protect the press and combat impunity.
Carlos Lauría is Americas senior program coordinator and Sara Rafsky is Americas program research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists.