Documents obtained by judicial order show that the company JBS, one of the largest food company in the world, and another company contracted by it in 2015 sponsored a smear campaign against Brazilian journalist and founder of the nonprofit organization Reporter Brazil, Leonardo Sakamoto. The information was published by Folha de S. Paulo on April 8.
Through paid ads on Google, companies allegedly promoted the defamatory text "Leonardo Sakamoto lies" presented as the first result for search with the terms "Sakamoto," "Leonardo Sakamoto" or "blog Sakamoto" in 2015.
"I can not count how many times I've been the target of smear campaigns, harassment and attacks online and in public spaces, because of my reports and analysis about slave labor and human rights. There are criminal lawsuits against me for the simple fact of that I reported on operations to rescue slaves – that are public information of public interest,” the journalist wrote on his Facebook page.
Sakamoto has a column at UOL, where he usually publishes articles on human rights, and he is the founder of Reporter Brasil, a site specialized in the fight against slave labor in Brazil. On the site, JBS is cited in reports on labor and environmental issues. The company denied its relationship with the propaganda against Sakamoto and said they paid for ads solely to report news related to their activity, but none of them included the name of the journalist or his portal. 4Buzz, the company contracted by JBS, also denied the allegations and could not explain how the company’s IPs were associated with the case.
In May 2015, the page "Leonardo Sakamoto lies" started to be promoted. The page accuses the journalist of corruption, says that Reporter Brasil received "more than R$ 1 million [Brazilian reais] a year to say good things about [Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff],” that he is the one who gets "most of the money," and that the NGO “does not do any practical activity,” but “spends more than R$ 1 million [Brazilian reais] per year from the Ministry of Human Rights."
Sakamoto received several threats because of the page. "I became a more constant target of cursing and even physical aggression," he said. "You're walking down the street, and an unknown person comes and pushes you; another day a car stops and someone curses and spits in your direction; you go to a restaurant and pictures of you begin to circulate with insults."
The journalist went to the justice department to demand that Google disclose the entity that paid for the ad. In September, by judicial order, Google said that the payment came from "JBS/SA".
Sakamoto is a constant target of attacks and defamatory actions on the web. This February, he received death threats after a fake interview with him was published by a local newspaper.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.