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Journalism in Amazonia

Violence and stereotyping


This article was written and published by Amazônia Latitude on 11 June 2024. You can read the original (in Portuguese) here. It was translated for LAB by Chris Whitehouse.

Main image: Collage of journalists fighting to defend Amazônia: Eliane Brum, Rubens Valente, Lúcio Flávio Pinto, Catarina Barbosa, Ariel Bentes, Ariene Susui, Rosane Steinbrenner and Dom Phillips. Artwork: Fabrício Vinhas

Journalists who cover the region, especially women, are subject to assaults, threats, coercion, lack of funding and stereotyping

On 5 June 2022, when they sailed up the River Itacoaí, in the Vale do Javari region, in Amazonas, the British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous peoples’ rights defender, Bruno Pereira, were murdered in an ambush. The tragedy, which attracted attention across the world, highlighted the danger of defending the rights of local communities and protecting the Amazon environment.

Two years after that crime, journalists in the Amazon region still have to deal with the indifference and insecurity associated with covering its vastness and diversity. Investigating issues linked to the socio-environmental impacts caused by large companies, farmers, land grabbers, loggers and miners requires courage.

Journalist and sociologist Lúcio Flávio Pinto from the state of Pará told Amazônia Latitude that these ‘arbiters of life and death’ hold local power in the most remote Amazonian territories and also in urban centres, restricting journalists’ freedom of expression and threatening their physical integrity.

Born in Santarém, Pará, Pinto is one of the most accomplished Brazilian investigative reporters. A journalist since 1966, he has been in the eye of the storm since the 1970s, denouncing destructive exploitation in the Amazon. A sociologist, he graduated from the São Paulo School of Sociology and Politics Foundation (FESPSP). Since 1987, he has edited Pessoal, an alternative publication that circulates in Belém.

Lúcio Flávio Pinto. Photo: Marcos Colón

Pinto points out that the challenges faced by journalism in the Amazon are the same as those in any other large metropolis, such as Brasília, São Paulo or New York. ‘But there is a level of debate and controversy specific to the Amazon, due to the extensive nature of international and national interests here,’ he explains.

In addition to the vested interests focused on the region, which are exploitative and contrary to the Indigenous peoples’ agenda, there is another side to consider. It is in the interior of the Amazon, in the various Amazons, that conflicts take place and where the victims of these conflicts are present. When doing investigative journalism in the region, journalists are exposed to physical, institutional and psychological  violence, mainly when the covering environmental, political and human rights issues.

‘The big challenge is how to deal with these situations in the Amazon hinterland. A famous land conflict, in which many people were killed, took place in the Piçarras region. The local big landowner ran the place, not the President of the Republic, nor the Army Minister nor any federal or state authority’, recalls Pinto, referring to the Revolt of the Forgotten, when family farmers stood up to land-grabbers and security personnel, a violent conflict over land in Piçarras, Pará, in the 1970s.

Businessmen, judges, politicians and loggers have sued Lúcio Flávio Pinto a total of 34 times. He has also received death threats and been assaulted three times. The most serious of these assaults was by Ronaldo Maiorana, one of the owners of Grupo Liberal, the main communications company in Pará.

Pinto was sued three times after denouncing the exploitation and potential disappearance of mahogany in the Amazon and the biggest land-grab in the history of Pará, carried out by the businessman, Cecílio do Rego Almeida, owner of Construtora C. R. Almeida.

A report by Pinto, published in Pessoa in 1999, found that Construtora C. R. Almeida grabbed almost five million hectares of land in the River Xingu region, in Pará. The crime was proven, but Cecílio do Rego Almeida, now deceased, was never arrested. Pinto even had to pay him compensation.

‘This has taken its toll over time. After working for 21 years in the mainstream press, I dedicated myself to alternative journalism and a publication that did not accept advertising. I turned my back on the main income that normally funds such a publication. I wouldn’t accept any advertising or patron. I didn’t want a political connection, because I wanted to write about what the mainstream press doesn’t cover, the most important things about the Amazon.’

When putting their lives at risk, journalists in the Amazon also deal with issues such as barriers to accessing information, geographical difficulties and lack of funding, as described in ‘O papel do jornalismo na defesa da Amazônia: uma análise comparativa do Brasil e da Colômbia’, a report released in May by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI) and the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), from Colombia.

The chapter on the Brazilian western Amazon shows that local conflicts are triggered by the exploitation of the forest, such as deforestation, illegal mining, land issues and violence linked to criminal factions.

Catarina Barbosa
Catarina Barbosa conduzindo uma entrevista. Photo: Personal Archive

The rising tide of violence in Amazônia

The report, Fronteiras da Informação – Relatório sobre jornalismo e violência na Amazônia, produced by the Vladimir Herzog Institute, analyzed the situation of Amazonian journalists, registering and mapping journalists who work in the region. Reports obtained by the research show that the region is experiencing a rising tide of violence against journalists.

There were 230 cases of violence against journalists recorded in the last ten years. Pará stands out as the most violent state, with 89 of the 230 cases. In Amazonas, 38 cases were recorded, followed by Mato Grosso (31) and Rondônia (20). The trend towards restricting freedom of expression is shown by the number of legal proceedings filed against journalists in 2022, an election year. There were 249 cases – an increase of 14 per cent compared to 2018.

Catarina Barbosa, a member of the ABRAJI board, an Amazon investigative journalist and feminist recognized for her work on human rights violations and socio-environmental issues in the Amazon region, says the most unprotected journalists are those who report on their own local area.

‘When you stay on home turf, you are much more vulnerable than a journalist who comes from outside to cover these stories. Security problems make it difficult to cover complex stories.’

Catarina Barbosa
Catarina Barbosa, ABRAJI board member

Barbosa says she has suffered intimidation during her field assignments in Pará. ‘It was common for employees of the company I was investigating to take photos of our team. It was more intimidation than a direct threat. In addition, press colleagues and advisors are so eager to defend their work that they can be quite threatening’, she says.

With a long career as a reporter in Amazonas newsrooms, journalist Ivânia Vieira, professor at the Faculty of Information and Communication at the Federal University of Amazonas (FIC/Ufam), researcher and member of the state’s women’s movement, says she has suffered threats for two reasons. First, for being a female journalist and second, for asking questions.

‘Together, these circumstances generate a reaction. In my time as a reporter and editor on urban issues, economics, politics and opinion columns over the years for a range of publications, I regularly encountered sexism from businesspeople, trade unionists, parliamentarians, government officials and officials in the judiciary’, she says.

Social and professional attitudes to journalists encourage violence against them. Moreover, people try to replace proper journalism with disinformation and speeches with destructive potential. ‘To take a stand against this conduct is to be attacked and threatened. I experienced this myself and some people still try to undermine my journalism because I am a woman’, said Vieira.

Catarina Barbosa explains that gender-based violence affects her work as a female journalist. She has suffered harassment while doing her job and has adopted security protocols to protect herself.

‘After what I went through, I developed a protocol for when working in the field. I wear loose clothes, I tie my hair up and I wear a cap. Amazonian women have to deal with special circumstances to do the work we do. Women are doing excellent work in the field and we need to talk about gender issues. A male journalist does not have to fear being raped. We face many more risks all the time in the places where we go to cover these issues’, she says.

Lack of funding for journalism in Amazônia

A lack of funding and difficulty accessing information add to the challenges faced by journalists in the Amazon. The geography of the territory itself makes journalism difficult and transport issues are obstacles to reporting. There is also interference from political and economic powers.

The financial weakening of local and independent media and communication initiatives contributes to the growth of so-called ‘news deserts’. Research by the Internet and Social Media Studies Laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) recorded narratives and disinformation strategies that contributed to the delegitimization of social movements, attacks on socio-environmental defenders and violence against Indigenous peoples in Brazil.

The report ‘Ecossistema da Desinformação Socioambiental no Brasil’ highlighted the precariousness of press coverage, which neglects the social impacts of deforestation, forest fires and extreme weather events. In Legal Amazonia, disinformation characterizes news deserts, resulting in a high rate of reproduction of content from local politicians’ press offices and news agencies financed by agribusiness and other exploitative activities.

Catarina Barbosa points out  that investigative and socio-environmental journalism in the Amazon is expensive. The distances involved often make coverage unfeasible. ‘I have raised this issue with regard to freelance journalists as well as for regular publications. There are a lot of independent outlets emerging, covering their own local affairs, and they need funding. But we also need to take a look at the situation of freelance journalists who are currently writing for various outlets,’ she says.

Ariel Bentes
Journalist and cofounder of Abaré, Ariel Bentes. Photo: Personal Archive/ Instagram

Journalist and cofounder of Abaré – School of Journalism, Ariel Bentes recalls the financial and physical insecurity he experienced when working as a freelance reporter in the Amazon during the Covid pandemic.

‘Independent reporting already carries countless challenges in itself. By focusing on this particular region, things get even worse. Working in the Amazon as a freelancer without any type of job security during the pandemic was very difficult. Editors, especially those in the southeast of the country, don’t understand what it’s like to work here. They don’t understand the logistics or the problems of internet connectivity,’ she says.

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At Abaré, Bentes focuses on strengthening local journalism and creating incentives for journalists to expand coverage of their own local areas, ‘so that we don’t have news deserts and so we have more information and investigations into certain areas’.

Beyond stereotypes

Faced with the complexities of journalism in the Amazon, journalists insist it is necessary to have in-depth knowledge of the region’s political, economic, geographic and social issues if they are to avoid reproducing the colonial and stereotypical narratives that are common in national and international coverage.

‘If they can access the information necessary to understand Amazonia, which is very complex, journalists can identify the problems. Environmental journalism needs to be aware of the specific ecological and sociopolitical issues in order to defend the Amazon’, emphasizes Lúcio Flávio Pinto.

Pinto maintains he could not produce good journalism about the Amazon if he was based in São Paulo. ‘I would become a victim of the exoticism prevalent in coverage of the region, which presents it as ‘the back of beyond’. The guys in the mainstream media are more interested in a story about an alligator walking down the middle of the street than about people hunting the animals.’

Lúcio Flávio Pinto says good journalism in the Amazon requires experience and commitment. He is passionate about the region and chose to return to live there, after decades working in other places.

‘I know the place because I live here and have access to a continuous stream of information. Journalists who are sent here on a mission and spend a week or ten days here lose interest. They don’t know the people or the environment. Real journalists live here and see things with their own eyes’, he says.

Pinto says journalism in the region is different from the rest of the country because of the possibility that people in the Amazon will ‘not make the mistakes made in the rest of Brazil, mainly replacing nature with human activities and cutting-edge technology’.

‘That’s why I am concerned about the emergence of companies, civil society organizations and movements to defend the Amazon, decarbonization, to make “green” steel, etc. This ecological rhetoric serves as a smokescreen for economic interests. Journalists have to know what’s going on to be able to expose these distortions.’

Ariene Susui, Indigenous activist and journalist of the Wapichana people. Photo: own Instagram image.

Ariene Susui aims to counter the stereotyping that is typical of her own personal and professional profile: she is a journalist, from the Amazon, a member of Wapichana Indigenous peoples and an activist. Although her focus is investigative reporting, newsrooms more commonly ask her to write opinion articles.

‘When I graduated, I wanted to work in investigative journalism but people didn’t believe that I could write a report like anyone else’, she says.

Susui believes it is necessary to change the colonialism that characterizes newsrooms. ‘Breaking this stereotype is a challenge. We need to talk about communication and journalism, so people understand we are professionals who are making this profession our way of contributing to a fairer society’.

Even with the recent emergence of journalism vacancies specifically for Indigenous people from the Amazon, Ariene believes that media outlets are not prepared to recruit professionals who practice counter-hegemonic journalism.

‘Journalism is part of the capitalist and colonial process. How can you have journalists who fight injustice, against prospectors and mining companies, against enterprises that have a direct impact on the region and climate change, in a newsroom that does not have this vision?’, she asks.

Catarina Barbosa believes that journalists from the Amazon need to write about the Amazon to have an impact. She thinks it is important for Indigenous peoples and established communities to tell their stories and contribute to materials that deal with their realities in a different way.

‘I have hopes for the kind of journalism that shows local realities as they are, that uses the words we use and that reflects what really happens here, without stereotyping. Only then will we ensure that people here are respected.’

She insists that colonization and views of the region as somewhere exotic act as a barrier to the participation of journalists from the Amazon in socio-environmental debate, which can only be positive if it is plural.

‘This narrative has always been monopolized and we weren’t the ones telling our stories. From the moment we start telling our stories, we make a break with the idea that the Amazon is a big green, empty and uninhabited place, which is what we used to read years ago. Who said that people from outside are saving the Amazon? This can only be possible if you listen to local people, but people from outside have no interest in questioning their positions because they are in a privileged position’, says Barbosa.

The academic point of view

Rosane Steinbrenner, deputy professor at the Faculty of Communication (Facom) and permanent lecturer at the Postgraduate Program in Communication Culture and the Amazon (PPGCom) at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), advocates training journalists to understand the complexity and diversity of subjectively covering Amazonian issues that involve social and political disputes.

‘Journalists need to understand who they are, where they are working and what are their values. They need to prepare working protocols, even more so with the high level of violence caused by disputes over land. The quality of journalism flows from the critical understanding displayed by the journalist’, she says.

Rosane Steinbrenner, Professor, Faculty of Communication, UFPA. Photo: Personal Archive

Steinbrenner also calls for journalists to be sensitive when reporting and ensure the integrity of information collected in conflict regions, bearing in mind that coverage makes conflicts visible. ‘Coverage often increases the level of risk for people in conflict. You need to be aware of the effects of your dissemination of information, of your role in the process and understand what it means to make certain realities visible. In other words, it is an ethical commitment to the stories that should and need to be told.’

Ivânia Vieira explains that journalists must constantly learn, whether that is mainstream scientific knowledge or the knowledge acquired by Indigenous peoples and communities.

Even so, there is resistance in academia to looking into Amazon issues in a way that is not stereotypical. The Amazon, says Vieira, is a place for questions, not silence.

‘In the Amazon, we learned to do journalism based on external notions that established a concept of ​​the Amazon that was cultivated, taught and shaped in training environments and structurally replicated in other environments. In part, the training and education system is based on colonial concepts and procedures that identify the Amazon as a backward place, where strange people live, with customs different from civilization. This system is produced by colonial actors under the aegis of scholarly learning’.

What does journalism in Amazônia need?

Ariene Susui observes that the environmental agenda in journalism is dominated by the elite and the privileged, without much contact with the Amazon itself. ‘The press can contribute much more to democratizing the environmental agenda, but it is still an elite agenda. Other mainstream media outlets in the southeast are able to gain access to places that perhaps those of us in the Amazon region cannot yet reach.’

Communication is no different to other forms of colonial processes, says Susui, because ‘people are looking from the outside in, they have not experienced what is going on and they therefore write erroneous narratives’. Susui believes it is essential for journalists from the Amazon to occupy this space.

‘We have to start respecting the journalists who are already here. There are local people providing journalism that responds to these realities, that listens to these realities and with sources that are actually local people’.

Rubens Valente, journalist and creator of the audio series ‘Morte e Vida Javari’. Photo: Personal archive

Rubens Valente, prize-winning journalist from Pará who has been covering the Amazon for  35 years, thinks differently. In general, he sees the presence of outside journalists as positive. Valente says that they may sometimes exaggerate, but that it is increasingly rare to find examples of reporting with a colonialist bias.

‘I don’t think it’s useful to label coverage that comes from outside as by definition colonialist, negative or bad. Journalism is also a product of discovering differences, of different visions, of the clash between different realities and cultures. If someone comes from outside and identifies real problems, it is excellent that they raise their concerns, from an unbiased view of reality. I think it’s healthy. There is no problem in discussing how to save the Amazon, if it is done on a verifiable, tangible and scientific basis. It is good to remember that when Dom Phillips was murdered in Vale do Javari, he was writing a book called How to Save the Amazon.

Ariene Susui argues that journalists who want to write about Amazon issues must study and be willing to change narratives. ‘There needs to be a decolonization of the narrative about established local communications, Indigenous peoples and the Amazon itself. The traditional journalists who think they know everything because they have had a good education have to forget about their ego.’

And what journalism does the Amazon need? Susui thinks the Amazon needs journalists who are committed to all lives. ‘’Human beings, non-human beings, the forest, the rivers, the people who are on the periphery, in the regions, the people who are fighting to demarcate their territories, the riverside communities. The Amazon needs journalism that is committed to life so that we can start writing about real stories’, he concludes.

Reporting and text: Nicoly Ambrosio Production: Nicoly Ambrosio & Marcos Colón Revision: Felipe Andretta Editing: Filipe Andretta & Marcos Colón Design: Alice Palmeira Coordinator: Alice Palmeira Artwork: Fabrício Vinhas Director: Marcos Colón

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