Brazil’s Politkovskaya?

Brazil and Russia are the two countries that I have truly lived in, other than my native UK. There are many ways in which they are different, not least the weather and the level of optimism.

Sometimes there will be something that happens here in Brazil and I find myself saying, “Wow, this is just like it was in Russia…” – and often the response is, “Oh, shut up. Brazil is nothing like Russia”. I put it down as a coincidence, and perhaps to the two simply not being the UK.

But then there are times when I’m writing stories for The Rio Times or blogging about something and, cross my heart, I type “Russia” and then have to hit the backspace to put “Brazil” in its place. There are, it turns out, many ways in which they are similar. And I’m not talking about the two of them both being members of BRICS (which, quite frankly, are about as related as a fishmonger is to a unicorn).

Décio Sá became the fourth campaigning journalist to be assassinated in Brazil so far this year.

And when it comes to reporting on politics and business, the topics could easily be about either country: fights over oil and gas, political corruption, company backhanders, the massive wealth gap, the growing middle class, and this week… the murder of investigative journalists and freedom of speech.

Last week, an investigative reporter for a paper in Maranhão state, in Brazil’s north-east, who was also a very active anti-corruption blogger, called Décio Sá, was gunned down at a bar in the state capital São Luís by what looks to be a professional hitman.

I’m not sure how many views his blog had before last Monday, but for a someone who was only really known locally, the 6.1 million figure now standing on the visits counter should tell you something.

For some reason, this one really seems to have struck a chord – nationally and internationally. It’s not on the same par yet, but this seems to have the potential to become Brazil’s Politkovskaya – the Russian reporter who criticised Putin and his wars in Chechnya, and was later slain because of it.

Clearly there are differences, but the coverage of this murder in Brazil is pretty much unprecedented, particularly given he wasn’t from Rio or São Paulo, and didn’t write for a national paper.

The media have followed every step – even today’s mass, traditionally held on the 7th day after the funeral. The story has also caught the attention of a number of international news agencies.

Horrifying pictures of Décio Sá’s body, lying at the crime scene, soon started circulating on the Internet.

Décio’s was the fourth murder of a journalist in Brazil in 2012 in as many months. Only one of those has been solved by police, but they’re certainly working hard on this one after the UN got involved – condemning the murder and the “disturbing trend” appearing, or rather in place, in Brazil.

Of those journalists murdered in the past twenty years in Brazil, only 30% of these cases have been solved, leading many to consider these reporters almost legitimate targets that you can rid the world of – with impunity.

The CPJ – Committee for Protecting Journalists – put Brazil as number 11 in its 2012 Impunity Index, which ranks countries by how many of the crimes committed against reporters are actually investigated and solved. Russia was 9th.

Other Latin countries in the rank are Mexico in 8th position, and Colombia at number five.

Whereas Russia very much closes its door and pays little attention to this type of criticism, particularly from what it sees as puny, home-grown meddlers calling themselves human rights activists (and then saying they’re funded by Western nations trying to destabilise the country), Brazil does seem to listen to its own people a bit more, at least to some extent – and it’s likely that calls from Brazilian organisations protecting journalists’ and general human rights will be noted, if not fully heeded – and the same with the flood of comments on Twitter that followed the murder, particularly if precisely why Décio Sá was targeted ever comes to light.

People in Brazil, and politicians and businessmen are no exception, generally speaking tend to care more about what people think about them than those I’ve come across in Russia. That’s just my impression.

This gathering for Décio Sá was only the first wave of recognition: protesters are now due to take to the streets.

Despite the Brazilian police’s woeful track record on finding, and bringing to account, those who order or execute ‘hits’ on tell-tale reporters, this time the Polícia Federal are working round-the-clock to solve the case, dangling a R$100,000 reward – around $52,000 – to loosen the right people’s tongues.

Two men are already in custody, charged with aiding the gunman’s escape, and the police are said to be close to announcing a description of the main suspect they are looking for, after thousands of leads from the public.

Just seven days after his funeral, the Sá case appears to have more leads and suspects than the hopeless, circus-like Politkovskaya police investigation which started after her murder in 2006.

If the public here continue to make their disgust for the murders of investigative journalists, whatever your opinion of them, so publicly known, and if the mass protects promised by his colleagues manage to rouse the public sufficiently, then just perhaps those lurking in the shadows will think twice about ordering that hit next time.

My hope is that the silence and censorship the criminals so desperately wanted unravels in spectacularly ugly style once they are caught, and before another journalist is killed.

The outpouring of grief and upset by people, particularly through social media, saying not only that Décio’s death was a terrible shame, a callous murder and an utter waste of a talented man’s life, but that these journalists are good people, working for the public and the betterment of society, aiming to rid the country of corruption and injustice, is certainly something different from what you’d be likely to hear the mainstream in Russia – where people often seem to view journalists with suspicious, as people working to their own agenda, and probably in cahoots with some “dark side” anyway.

Although Russian journalists have suffered more attacks and many more murders than their Brazilian counterparts, the number of murders already registered this year in Brazil – four in as many months – perhaps means that Décio Sá will finally be the wake-up call Brazil sorely needs.

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