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The local journalists under threat in Brazil

Reporters who dare speak out against corruption in their communities are being targeted in deadly attacks.
Last modified: 25 Feb 2013 08:47

A few months ago I got a call from a researcher at a journalism rights group who wanted to know my views on the dangers journalists face working in Brazil.

From my standpoint, it was a pretty simple answer. I told the researcher that, in my opinion, the journalists in most danger in Brazil all fit the same general profile: radio, print, bloggers, working in small- medium-sized towns, usually located in the north or northeast of the country, and who report on local corruption.

This past Friday it happened, again.

Mafaldo Bezerra Gois, 51, was a radio journalist in the town of Jaguaribe, population 36,493. The city is about as remote as you can get, a good 300km inland from Fortaleza, the coastal capital city in the northeast state.

Gois hosted a daily political talk show programme, from 11am until 12 noon, on Radio Jaguaribe FM.

He was well known in the town because he often used his programme to call out what he (or his listeners) viewed as local-level corruption or other wrong doing.

Gois would receive anonymous, threatening calls to his mobile phone. He reported some of them to the local police but carried on with his work.

At about 8:30am on Friday, Gois was walking to the radio station on the main road through town, the BR-116, when two men on motorbikes pulled up next to him and opened fire, according to Umirim Noticias.

Gois was hit twice in the head, and three times in the chest area, police said. He almost certainly died instantly.

The men on the motorbikes sped off before police could arrive. Nobody has been arrested.

News of his murder barely made a ripple in Brazil over the weekend.

I wish I could say I was shocked when I heard about it. But I wasn't.

Gois fit the profile: A small-town journalist unafraid to repeatedly ask questions that might make some people very uncomfortable. In short, the most dangerous job in journalism in Brazil.

In recent weeks, a flurry of new reports were released listing Brazil as one of the most deadly countries for journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks Brazil in their new report as the fourth most deadliest country in the world for journalists. 

CPJ also produced this excellent report highlighting the risk journalists and bloggers face in smaller cities.

Dodging bullets 

The Vienna-based International Press Institute says in 2012 the only countries more dangerous for journalists than Brazil were Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Mexico.

To an international audience, Rio de Janeiro is often portrayed as the perilous place where journalists dodge bullets while covering shootouts between police and drug traffickers. True, Rio has its moments.

There have been some tragic and high-profile cases, like in 2002 when Globo TV journalist Tim Lopes was tortured, killed and his body set on fire after being caught secretly filming with a hidden camera in Rio's Vila Cruzeiro favela.

Two unidentified print journalists for Rio daily O Dia were savagely tortured in 2008 in another favela after they were discovered discreetly investigating the presence of militia members in the slum. The journalists were released, and went into hiding.

And in 2011, Gelson Domingos, a video journalist in Rio for TV Bandeirantes, was killed near Antares favela when he was hit by a stray bullet during a shootout between police and traffickers while accompanying an operation. (The high caliber round pierced the low grade flak jacket he was wearing).

But those cases, while tragic, are the exception, not the rule.

Truth is, stray bullets are a serious worry in Rio for anybody – especially innocent people in favelas – and not only journalists. But in general, the bad guys in places like Rio normally don't intentionally target journalists like they do in, say, many parts of Mexico.

Cases like Gois, unfortunately, have become the norm in Brazil.

Brazil is a big country (almost exactly the size of the continental United States) and in many far-away towns in the interior where the policing is weak, and impunity and local corruption abundant, it's just too easy to pay a couple hundred bucks to guys on motorbikes to take out a pesky local reporter asking too many questions.

I am not a judge to rule on what happened exactly in Gois' case, but it doesn't take the chief justice on the Supreme Court to figure out all the signs point in that direction.

Brazil is a country of a handful of healthy and competitive media conglomerates based in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. They do what they do very well.

But it's the thousands of journalists like Gois all over distant parts of the country that fill in the gaps and provide the checks to the balances on a daily basis in the smaller towns where the big boys of Brazilian journalism can't report from everyday.

Mafaldo Bezerra Gois, RIP.

Hoping you're not just one more number in another report next year.

Because you deserve more. Your profession needs you, and so does your country.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel