Communicators threatened for doing their work were officially included in the protection program for human rights defenders of Brazil’s Ministry of Human Rights (MDH, for its initials in Portuguese).
Until last week, at-risk communicators who tried to use the program had to prove their professional activity was related to human rights so that their cases could be analyzed and monitored. But on Sept. 3, the Ministry announced changes to the name and focus of the program, which officially became the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders, Social Communicators and Environmentalists.
According to decree no. 300 of the MDH, a "social communicator with a regular role in media activities, whether in the performance of a professional activity or in a personal activity, even if unpaid, to disseminate information that aims to promote and defend human rights and that, as a result of acting in this objective, are experiencing situations of threat or violence that seek to constrain or inhibit their action for that purpose" is considered a human rights defender.
The measure is the result of more than five years of pressure from civil society organizations on the coordinators from the program, Marina Iemini Atoji, executive director of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), told the Knight Center.
On Sept. 10, Atoji and representatives of other organizations related to the theme, such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Article 19 and the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj), participated in a workshop in Brasilia with the technical staff of the program and the MDH ombudsman.
In the workshop, representatives of these organizations showed the Ministry team the peculiarities of the work of communicators in the country, profiles of the most vulnerable communicators and the current situation of threat to the free exercise of communication in Brazil.
"We noticed that for many there [with MDH] it was the first time they were hearing about how violations against journalists usually happen," Atoji said. "It was a bit of a breakthrough for them on the subject."
The program team, in turn, presented the data it had on the participation of communicators in the initiative. According to Atoji, there is an underreporting of cases of violence against communicators to the MDH.
Therefore, one of the main goals of the organizations present in the workshop is to make communicators aware of the possibility of using the program if they are under threat for doing their work. "Visibility is important because communicators often do not recognize themselves as human rights defenders, nor do they know the possibility of reporting channels or do not perceive themselves as the public for this program. The idea is that there is now a joint effort to make that happen," RSF's Artur Romeu told the Knight Center.
The main channel for submitting complaints to the MDH is Disque 100, a telephone center that receives complaints of human rights violations and operates 24 hours a day, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. "The calls can be made all over Brazil toll-free, from any fixed or mobile (cellular) telephone terminal, simply dial 100," explains the MDH website.
"Regardless of how the complaint is made, the data is recorded in the same system. It is on this basis that the protection program acts. It is the first step for the program to take action” on the complaint, Romeu explained.
Among the measures of protection that can be taken by the program are visits to the communicator's place of work to analyze the case and the situation of risk, communication with local authorities about the need to follow the case and monitoring to verify the permanence of the risk and the situation of the threat against the communicator.
In cases of serious threat, the program may request protection for the communicator from public security agencies and also provide temporary reception "with the objective of preserving the physical safety of the defender and his/her family by removing it to a place different from the threat,” as explained in decree no 300.
The Abraji representative stated that one of the issues raised to the MDH team by organizations is that the threat to the communicator often comes from state agents. In 2017, in at least 20 cases, politicians or other public agents were the main suspects of ordering or carrying out attacks on communicators, according to a report from Artigo 19. An alternative given by the program team for these cases was to trigger prosecutors or the Federal Police, Atoji said.
Abraji and RSF are members of the Permanent Commission on the Right to Communication and Freedom of Expression, created in 2015 within the framework of the National Human Rights Council (CNDH), which inspects and monitors public human rights policies in Brazil.
According to Atoji, the members of the Commission decided at a meeting on Sept. 11 to structure a database with cases of violations of rights and violence against communicators and to submit that to the protection program.
"We saw that the ombudsman did not know or did not have contact with so many reports and so many cases. We register the violations. So we will consolidate this data and make a database with all of them, taking duplicates and finding a minimum common denominator, because each organization has a registration criteria, and make it available to the ombudsman," Atoji said.
In the first half of 2018 alone, Abraji reported 71 cases of assaults, threats, attacks and attempted murders of communicators in the country. RSF reported 52 cases of threats, assaults and murders. So far, four communicators have been murdered in Brazil this year in contexts that indicate that the crime was motivated by their professional activity.
For the organizations, the purpose is for the program to use this data to develop measures relevant to the specific situation of communicators.
The commission will also select one or two cases and test the flow of the program for communicators, filing the complaint and tracking its referral, Atoji said.
RSF's Artur Romeu said that civil organizations will closely follow the developments of this new measure. "We have noticed, both in the workshop and before, an important opening by the MDH team to work together with civil society organizations and to strengthen this dialogue. From now on, the idea is to continue to strengthen this dialogue and confidence and to ensure pressure so that this public policy is effective. "
The Knight Center contacted the Ministry of Human Rights with questions about including journalists in the protection program, but had not received a response when this note was published.