A missing journalist in Brazil, and the ghost of press freedom at the Summit of the Americas

Last week, Dom Phillips, a British journalist based in Brazil who writes regularly for The Guardian and has been working on a book about the environment, set off by boat to interview Indigenous land defenders in the Javari valley, a warren of rivers and forests in a remote corner of the Amazon. Bruno Araújo Pereira, a sometime government official and expert on Indigenous communities, accompanied Phillips. Early on Sunday morning, the pair stopped for a scheduled meeting as they headed back toward the municipality of Atalaia do Norte. They should have reached the latter town within a few hours, but didn’t; local Indigenous leaders dispatched a search party to look for them, but it was unsuccessful. On Monday, those leaders raised a loud alarm out of concern for the pair’s safety. According to The Guardian, Pereira had been threatened by miners, loggers, and others in the area as recently as last week.

Brazil’s navy said that it would join the search, but it didn’t initially use any of its helicopters; meanwhile, Brazil’s army said that it had not been authorized to intervene, only reversing that position on Monday night. Various journalists criticized the official effort while relatives of the missing people and advocates pleaded for the authorities to do more, with one Indigenous-rights group filing a legal motion to that end. As Phillips and Pereira remained missing yesterday, fears only grew as to their fate, Terrence McCoy, a friend of Phillips’s, reported in the Washington Post. McCoy described the area in which the pair were traveling as “a lawless region pervaded by violent criminals intent on destroying the forest and extracting resources from it”—and an Indigenous-rights worker with whom Phillips and Pereira had been in touch said that the latter had taken a photo of an illegal fisherman who had brandished a gun.

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For his part, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, appeared to blame Phillips and Pereira’s plight on Phillips and Pereira themselves. “Two people in a boat, in a completely wild region like this, is an adventure that isn’t recommendable for one to do,” Bolsonaro said. “Anything could happen. An accident could happen. They could have been executed.”

Since taking office at the beginning of 2019, Bolsonaro has been “an unabashed supporter of development projects in the Amazon,” as McCoy put it, encouraging mining and deforestation while weakening the Indigenous agency for which Pereira has worked; Beto Marubo, an Indigenous leader, told The Guardian that land invaders have felt “empowered” by Bolsonaro’s rule, and have become more organized and aggressive. In September 2019, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, an Indigenous protection official, was murdered execution-style in a town close to Atalaia do Norte; observers claimed that the killing was retaliatory, but according to Marubo, the official response was lacking, and poachers subsequently invoked dos Santos’s fate as a threat against other communities. According to the human rights NGO Global Witness, twenty land and environmental defenders were killed in Brazil in 2020. Those deaths contributed to a broader toll, which predates Bolsonaro, of three hundred seventeen between 2012 and 2020, making Brazil one of the world’s deadliest countries for such defenders.

The situation for journalists in Brazil might be described in similar terms: it was dangerous long before Bolsonaro took over—Reporters Without Borders counted at least thirty killings of media workers between 2010 and 2020, making it the second deadliest country in the region for journalists during that period—but Bolsonaro has piled on further pressure in a political sense, exposing the press to violent rhetoric, regulatory threats, and online trolling; as RSF concludes, “the relationship between the press and the government has greatly deteriorated” since Bolsonaro took power. The last time I wrote about him at length in this newsletter, back in 2019, he had just attacked a journalist on Twitter for supposedly plotting to destroy his family; he shared audio that he said proved his case, except it actually exonerated the journalist. One of the articles that I cited debunking Bolsonaro’s attack was written by Dom Phillips.

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This week, Bolsonaro is set to meet with US president Joe Biden at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles—their first bilateral sit-down. The Financial Times reports that Bolsonaro, who flirted with skipping the summit, sees a Biden photo-op as “a way to rebut criticism that his populist policies—notably his support for loggers and gold miners in the Amazon—have left Brazil isolated on the global stage” as he seeks reelection later this year; Biden, for his part, has been publicly critical of Bolsonaro, a Trump ally and imitator, but also wants to project the sense that he is rallying the wider region. The White House said that the Bolsonaro meeting will focus on food insecurity, climate, and rebuilding after covid, all key priorities for the summit as a whole. It’s not clear if Biden will raise the plight of Phillips and Pereira—or threats to journalists and land defenders in Brazil more broadly—though Bolsonaro reportedly conditioned his attendance on Biden not confronting him on bones of contention, including deforestation.

At an event in LA yesterday, Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, did speak about press-freedom problems in the wider Americas, saying that “no region in the world is more dangerous for journalists.” He singled out El Salvador by name, pointing to recent legislation censoring coverage of gangs. He also called out Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—the only three countries that the US refused to invite to the summit, citing their “lack of democratic space” and poor human rights records—for criminalizing journalism more broadly. In its most recent global census of imprisoned reporters, the Committee to Protect Journalists found journalists behind bars in three Latin American countries. Cuba and Nicaragua were two. The other was Brazil.

In response to the ban on Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, announced that he would not attend the summit, accusing the White House of “interventionism” and disrespect. The leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have also declined to attend; all four countries are sending their foreign ministers instead. According to Politico’s Jonathan Lemire, US officials have grown frustrated that “the back-and-forth soap opera over the guest list has been the defining—and only—breakthrough conversation” about the summit in media coverage. Regional press freedom has certainly not been a breakthrough conversation, even though, as Blinken correctly identified, it is in a state of crisis. “The Americas,” of course, is a broad place, and some countries within it have better press-freedom records than others; Uruguay, for example, hosted this year’s World Press Freedom Day organized by the United Nations. The overall picture, though, is one of growing threat.

A not insignificant portion of that threat relates specifically to coverage of environmental and Indigenous land issues, and cannot easily be separated from the broader threats faced by frontline defenders and activists. In 2019, Forbidden Stories, a journalism group based in Paris, reported, as part of its “Green Blood” series, that authorities in Guatemala criminally pursued a local reporter who documented the killing of an Indigenous fisherman at a protest against a Swiss-owned mine. Last year, Sasha Chavkin, of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, wrote for CJR about a colleague in Nicaragua who fled that country after reporting on a deforestation crisis that has largely escaped international attention because witnesses, including land defenders, “were being silenced.” We must hope, now, that Phillips and Pereira might yet be spared mention in this same breath. Unlike with the leaders of Guatemala and Nicaragua, Biden at least has the power to press their case with a fellow president this week.

Below, more on press freedom and the Americas:

  • Brazil: In April, Paula Ramón wrote for CJR about Allan dos Santos, “a key figure in the domination of fake news in Brazil.” It “seems that what motivates dos Santos is not ideology. It’s the chance to make money, according to interviews. With the support of the Bolsonaro family and others in the government, he reached thousands of followers on his social networks, where he monetized the reproductions of his videos, asked for donations, and sold courses on journalism and philosophy,” Ramón reports.
  • Honduras: Late last month, Ricardo Alcides Ávila, a TV host and camera operator in Honduras, was fatally shot in the head while riding his motorcycle. Honduran police suggested that he had been the victim of a robbery, but Amada Ordoñez, the director of a local free-expression group, disputed that account, telling CPJ that none of Ávila’s valuables were taken. Ordoñez believes that Ávila was attacked in retaliation for his coverage of protests against controversial economic-development zones in his area.
  • Mexico: As Paroma Soni recently reported for CJR, 2022 has been a particularly deadly year for journalists in Mexico, with CPJ and other observers criticizing López Obrador for his inadequate and insensitive response as well as his broader “fraught relationship with the media.” Astrid Galván and Marina E. Franco now report, for Noticias Telemundo and Axios, that more than a dozen Democrats in the US Congress are demanding that the Biden administration do more to help protect Mexican journalists, including by reviewing a widely criticized safety program that has been partly funded by US aid dollars.
  • Migration: Migration is another major theme of this week’s summit. Recently, Whitney Eulich, of the Christian Science Monitor, profiled El Migrante, a monthly newspaper—founded by US and Mexican journalists affiliated with the nonprofit media group Internews, and distributed at shelters in Mexico—that aims “to equip vulnerable migrants heading for the United States with oftentimes lifesaving information about their rights, where they can seek support, and what is new with ever-shifting border policies.” The team behind the paper also runs a biweekly radio show and a WhatsApp group.

Some news from the home front:
Today, CJR is out with a new, digital edition of our magazine, focused on the pandemic and the press. The spine of the issue is a deep dive, which I reported and wrote, tracing coverage of covid from its emergence through the early part of this year, based on my daily observations in this newsletter and interviews with more than forty reporters, editors, pundits, and public health officials, including Anthony Fauci. One journalist featured in the piece has suffered from long covid; another lost two close family members; all attested to the challenges of covering a generation-defining science story in an unbalanced information environment. The issue, designed by Kiel Mutschelknaus and Darrel Frost, also features audio, visual, and written contributions from my CJR colleagues Amanda Darrach, Karen Maniraho, Caleb Pershan, Paroma Soni, and Kyle Pope. You can find it all here.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: British journalist Dom Phillips, right, and a Yanomami Indigenous man walk in Maloca Papiu village, Roraima state, Brazil, Nov. 2019. Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira have been reported missing in a remote part of Brazil's Amazon region, a local Indigenous association said Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Joao Laet)