Who killed them and who told them to kill? Tim Lopes Program launches in Brazil with videos on murdered journalists

In the course of 9,190 miles and four months, reporters Bob Fernandes and Bruno Miranda visited four Brazilian states to find out who pulled the trigger and who ordered the firing of 36 shots that killed six Brazilian journalists in iconic cases for the country's press.

The result is, "Who killed them? Who told them to kill?" a documentary and a series of special reports that inaugurate the Tim Lopes Program for the Protection of Journalists from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji). The initiative was created to investigate murders, assassination attempts and abductions of media professionals and to continue the reports the murderers attempted to derail.

The four cases of violence highlighted in the mini documentaries form a “microcosm” of Brazilian journalism today, according to Fernandes. All six communications professionals featured lived in cities far from major Brazilian centers and most worked in radio. In many cases, they had to negotiate directly with advertisers or balance various other jobs. In all stories, impunity reigns.

"We perceived the personal, professional, economic fragility of these journalists and saw Brazil as it is today. It is not surprising that such cases occur in a country that has more than 60,000 homicides a year. Journalists are not untouchable. How do we escape this?" Fernandes asked the Knight Center.

The reporter explained that the case of Gleydson Carvalho, a radio broadcaster who was killed in Ceará in 2015 while on air, was chosen to begin the documentary because of its peculiarity and its repercussion worldwide. Rodrigo Neto and Walgney de Carvalho, who died in Minas Gerais in 2013, are an example because of the strong reaction from the local journalists' union. Impunity marks the case of Djalma Santos, who died in Bahia in 2015: in the city where the radio journalist worked, there is no prosecutor or judge. Finally, the murders of Paulo Rocaro and Luiz Henrique Tulu appear in the documentary because of the particular situation of the border town of Ponta Porã in Mato Grosso do Sul, where there is conflict between politicians and drug trafficking.

Another characteristic the four cases share is suggested in the title of the series: the influence of politics and the police. In every episode, there is an accusation, indictment or suspicion of politicians or relatives having been the perpetrators of the crimes. And in half of the murders, police officers are suspected or accused of being involved.

Around these problems, there is a bigger and more urgent issue, according to Fernandes: the media monopoly. "The monopoly wipes out jobs and takes away plurality. Imagine what it is like to work in a state where a great political boss owns a television station, radio station and newspaper? Where does advertising money go?"

The case of Djalma Santos is illustrative of the economic fragility of journalists like him. In addition to radio, he also ran a small fumigation business, a chicken breeding site, and the kiosk-bar from which he was abducted. Before he died, the radio journalist announced that he would run for councilor or mayor. Today, the main line of investigation of the homicide is that it was a political crime.

During the launch of the film on Sept. 28 at the Caixa Belas Artes in São Paulo, journalist Bruno Miranda, who worked on the project as a photographer, commented that he was surprised by the resistance of radio stations in the interior of the country. "In these places, the internet is not yet as strong and journalism is very strong on the radio.”

But what the two reporters found in their travels confirmed a thesis: practicing journalism in the country is still taking a risk. This is what Fernandes and Miranda heard from the gravedigger of the city of Ponta Porã, Ponce Martins: "It is a profession of danger. How many journalists have I buried?!”

Risk may be one of the reasons behind the greatest difficulty the journalists faced in producing the documentary: to have colleagues, relatives and other witnesses reminisce about the murders. After deciding which cases would be addressed, the challenge was to get in touch with the media outlets where the victims worked. "There was the question of fear," Fernandes said. "Many were afraid to tell the stories on video. And people did not want to go back to those cases."

In Ipatinga, Minas Gerais, the pair heard a powerful report in that vein from Vale de Aço newspaper reporter Gisele Ferreira. After the murders of Rodrigo Neto and Walgney de Carvalho, she made the choice not to continue with a confrontational journalism and not to look for obscured facts on her own. She and her colleagues wants to "forget." My thirst for fact and for justice was very great, but justice itself showed me that life is worth much more. I want to stay alive...I want to live."

For the producers of the documentary, it was also a burden to deal with the stories of their colleagues, as one of the film's directors, João Wainer recounted. "What we want is for this kind of thing to no longer happen. So we are working on behalf of the entire profession. And we're talking about protecting freedom of expression, which is a constitutional right," he told the Knight Center.

The audiovisual content collected in the trips is gathered in four videos released on the internet, in addition to the documentary that brings the four cases together. The complete movie is different from the episodes published on YouTube, which are shorter and more dynamic.

For the association, the goal is now to get more people to watch and debate the end result obtained by the authors. "We won the first leg by telling these stwories. Now the material produced has to be disseminated," Abraji president Thiago Herdy told the Knight Center.

Second phase in production

The second phase of the Tim Lopes Program aims to establish a rapid reaction protocol in the event of future deaths of other journalists. The goal is that whenever a communicator is assassinated or prevented from practicing his profession in Brazil, a pool of experienced reporters from different media outlets will be dedicated to accomplishing two missions: investigating and reporting on the death of the colleague and continuing their work.

"We want to show that you cannot kill journalists in Brazil. It is important that the city that receives these journalists knows that 'Tim has arrived,’ that the press is there and that it is a strong institution. This can serve as an inspiration for confronting violence against the press in other countries," Herdy told the Knight Center during the organization's July congress, when Abraji first announced the program.

The Tim Lopes Program was conceived by journalist Marcelo Beraba, Abraji's first president, who was inspired by the Arizona Project from U.S. organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). In response to 1976 car bomb explosion that killed reporter Don Bolles in Phoenix, the journalist’s colleagues traveled to Phoenix to finish his investigative work.

The name of the Brazilian project is a tribute to TV Globo investigative reporter Tim Lopes who was brutally murdered in 2002 while working on a story about parties hosted by drug traffickers in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. His death, which happened 15 years ago this past June, shocked the Brazilian press and motivated the creation of Abraji.

João Wainer expects the initiative to have a 'Kiki Camarena effect' – a reference to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) agent in the United States. After his death in Mexico in 1985, the pressure for justice was so great that crimes against American agents were inhibited. For the journalist, the press still does not demand justice when a journalist is killed.

"The Tim Lopes case was very different [from those that appeared in the documentary, in terms of pressure for justice]. When a crime happens against a small radio station from the interior, at most there is a news article. There is a lack of case follow-up on a constant basis," he told the Knight Center.

Coordinator of the program, journalist Angelina Nunes, explained that the association is already negotiating with newspapers from the five regions of Brazil and guaranteed that the answers have been positive. The challenge now is to operationalize the project, as Abraji is entering an unknown territory in the country.

"We are going to do a job that does not exist yet. There is no prior agreement with the top floor. Companies will have to cede reporters and the distribution of the report will also be in the form of a pool. We're not used to it and that's why it's so fascinating,” Nunes said.

Herdy pointed out that the safety of reporters involved in the project is "an obsession" for Abraji. In this sense, Nunes reinforced that those selected from each newsroom must pass a security course for journalists working in a conflict zone.

"It's not just getting into the city. There are a number of measures we have to take before. After the death of Tim Lopes, the entire press became more aware of this and began to take different protection measures,” he said.

For Beraba, the feasibility of a project like the Tim Lopes Program denotes the growth of Abraji and, consequently, the improvement of training of Brazilian journalists and the culture of collaboration among newsrooms in the country.

"At the beginning of Abraji, we were not in a position to do such a project. We had the problem of funding, of not having a culture of collaboration in the newsrooms. And to replicate in the Complexo do Alemão [favela of Rio de Janeiro where Tim Lopes was killed] the Arizona project would be an irresponsible risk. The association then sought to improve the quality of our training, to defend freedom of expression and freedom of access to information," Beraba told the Knight Center during the association’s conference this year.

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.