Dying for a story: Brazil’s journalists are being killed at record rates

by December 9, 2015 5:00AM ET

Brazil now ranks among the deadliest nonwar zones for reporters, yet these abuses are difficult to prove

The site where the body of journalist Evany José Metzker was discovered on May 18, 2015, five days after he disappeared in Brazil's Jequitinhonha valley. Metzker's personal effects had not yet been removed from the scene.
Valseque Bomfim
A family photo of Metzker. He was 67 when he was killed.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N.

PADRE PARAÍSO, Brazil — He called himself the Owl of the Valley. Journalist Evany José Metzker, 67, wanted to see everything that happened in this backwater town situated amid the banana plantations and clandestine gold mines of Brazil’s interior.

Straddling a major highway where truck robberies and child prostitution are routine, Padre Paraíso has 18,000 inhabitants, many of whom are destitute. In recent years drug gangs have taken hold of the town. “Here, they’d kill you for two cents,” muttered one policeman.

On May 13 Metzker, who was on a reporting trip from his home 73 miles away, disappeared. Five days later, his beheaded corpse was found by the side of a secluded dirt track. His identity documents and bank cards were left strewn nearby.

Police say they have yet to identify a motive, although his previous reporting touched on the sensitive topics of political nepotism and the activities of local criminals. He had told friends he would soon publish an explosive story about Padre Paraíso.

“He wanted to moralize that town,” said his friend Gildete Sena. “Journalists want to help. In many towns, no one is helping. You care about where you live, so you try. But sometimes the world is not what you want it to be.”

Brazil is seeing an unprecedented rise in murders of journalists, with at least 17 killed in retribution for their reporting since 2011, according to the nonprofit group Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ. That is as many as were recorded in the country in the previous 19 years. Brazil now ranks among the most deadly nonwar zones for reporters.

Journalists here have long lived in fear of being threatened, sued, beaten, exiled or murdered. But in recent years a new cohort of lone operators has emerged, enabled by the Internet. Lacking institutional support and often the only reporters in their towns, they are especially vulnerable in an increasingly violent country that now records nearly 60,000 murders a year. Few perpetrators are brought to justice, although the number of convictions has edged upward in recent years.

A view of Metzker's hometown of Medina, Brazil, located in the state of Minas Gerais, in September.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N. for Al Jazeera America

“It is clear that not enough is being done to prevent these murders,” said Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator for CPJ. “Impunity for the killing of journalists not only threatens them but takes a toll on the quality of democracy.”

Tall and well-built, with dark glasses and a mustache, Metzker lived in Medina, a quiet town of pastel terraced cottages on the BR-116, a 3,000-mile north-south highway that connects it to Padre Paraíso. The only journalist in the town, he was dedicated to his blog, the Owl of the Valley, and previously, his self-published newspaper, Atuação. He spent his days looking for stories and his nights writing until dawn, hunched over his laptop perpetually smoking Hilton cigarettes.

“He had such pride when people wrote in or spoke to him on the street to give him stories,” said his widow, Ilma Chaves Silva Bordes, 51.

He worked alone, earning some money from advertising from local businesses. If he received threats, he never told Bordes, an elementary-school teacher, or the two children from her first marriage he helped raise.

Much of his journalism was modest. In Medina, located in the impoverished Jequitinhonha valley in the state of Minas Gerais, he covered the local government’s failures, such as potholed roads and poor health care services. But last year he began to travel to other valley towns, including Padre Paraíso. The town had one other blogger but no established media. With nine murders so far this year, it also has one of the world’s highest per capita homicide rates.

The rooms at the Pousada Elis motel, where Metzker stayed on his visit to Padre Paraíso.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N. for Al Jazeera America

Metzker arrived for an extended stay on Feb. 13 and checked into the Pousada Elis, a cinder-block motel with a tiled red and white front, for a negotiated rate of 30 reals ($8) a night. A week later, he wrote on his blog of how the town’s population was “at the mercy of bandits of all kinds, with high rates of theft, robbery, assault and drug crimes.” 

On his blog, he took up the case of a boy who could not get state medical treatment for a tooth infection. He detailed a murder, a bank robbery and the alleged rape of an autistic 7-year-old boy. And in some cases he touched on the kind of provocative reporting that has sometimes led to other journalists’ being killed in Brazil.

He twice criticized nepotism, alleging that the mayor, Dulcinéia Duarte de Souza Pinto, had appointed her husband, Saulo Oliveira Pinto, to run the town’s health department. Pinto was formerly mayor himself, but was banned from running again by a court over irregularities in the city’s finances. Metzker illustrated one post in March with a picture of Pinocchio. The mayor declined to be interviewed for this story. 

On May 5, he wrote about Alexandro de Souza Ferreira Santos, a 31-year-old “king of thieves,” who he said had committed many crimes in the town, such as robbery, before eventually being arrested. He also named the man’s parents and published the family’s address. Santos could not be reached for comment.

Metzker became friends with the vice mayor, Wenderson de Almeida Pedrosa, 45. The blogger told the official he was investigating truck robberies, the falsification of driving licenses and the sexual exploitation of children by their families on the BR-116. But police say there were no draft articles on his computer that could provide them with clues to his murder.

According to Pedrosa, Metzker did receive at least one threat. “After several weeks in Padre Paraíso, Metz received a phone call,” Pedrosa, who spoke to him daily, recalled. “The man on the line said: ‘You need to leave this town.’ But Metz did not worry about that. He was scared, but he did not have a suspect.”

The restaurant Come Bem, where Metzker dined the night of his disappearance.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N. for Al Jazeera America
Blogger Valseque Bomfim, a friend of Metzker's and the only journalist based in Padre Paraíso.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N. for Al Jazeera America

On the evening of May 13, Metzker dined with Valseque Bomfim, 64, the only other journalist in the town, at the Come Bem restaurant, a few yards from the BR-116. The pair sat at a plastic table near the door, where they ate barbecued meat and shared a bottle of stout beer. “He told me he had a bombshell of a story and implied it would be published soon,” Bomfim said. "But he did not reveal its subject."

The men returned to Metzker’s hotel room, where Bomfim stayed for 10 minutes.

“I wish I could go back there to him and say, ‘Be careful, watch out,’ ” Bomfim said in tears as he recalled these events.

Later, Metzker left his room, leaving the lights and fan turned on, and advised the receptionist, “I’ll be back soon."

Five days later, on May 18, farmworkers spotted a body amid parched bracken ferns off a secluded tract 13 miles from the town.

Two military police officers called to the scene found Metzker’s half-naked body. His hands had been tied behind his back with shoelaces. His head was found 100 yards away. He was still wearing a black shirt with his website’s logo, a yellow owl, sewn on the breast.

“There is no reason in this case,” said Emerson Morais, a police detective who is leading the murder investigation. “There is no reason in Padre Paraíso.”

Policemen inspect the area where Metzker's body was found, May 18, 2015.
Valseque Bomfim
An identity card found near Metzker's body.
Valseque Bomfim

Morais believes Metzker was kidnapped in the town by at least two people and murdered the same day. But there are currently no leads and the detective says he has found no evidence to suggest he was killed because of his reporting.

The uncertainty over the motive echoes that of many such unsolved cases. “We can only be sure when someone is actually convicted,” said Guilherme Alpendre, executive secretary of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism.

Metzker’s family, who are convinced he was killed because of his work, say they have faith in the investigation, which is being conducted by a task force from the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Morais led a probe into the 2013 killings of two journalists, leading to the conviction of one police officer for both murders. Nationally there have been seven convictions in the past two years, the CPJ says.

In the last year, Brazil has barely gone more than three months without the murder of at least one journalist. On Dec. 23, 2014, blogger Marcos de Barros Leopoldo Guerra was killed by a hail of bullets fired through the kitchen window at his home in the beach resort of Ubatuba, near São Paulo. The lawyer had accused local politicians of misusing public funds. On March 5, Paraguayan radio journalist Gerardo Ceferino Servian Coronel was shot execution-style in Ponta Porã, Brazil.

On May 22, musician and radio journalist Djalma Santos da Conceição was playing samba in a bar he owned in Governador Mangabeira, in the northeastern state of Bahia, when he was kidnapped by hooded men. His body was found the next morning with 25 bullet shells lying nearby. His right eye had been gouged out and his tongue hacked off. On Aug. 6, Gleydson Carvalho was presenting his afternoon radio show on Radio Liberdade in Camocim, in the northeastern state of Ceará, when two gunman burst in and shot him dead. On Nov. 10, radio journalist Israel Gonçalves Silva was shot dead by an assassin in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, moments after dropping off his two children at school.

Those three cases reflect a deadly trend in the murdering of radio journalists in the northeastern interior, where radio stations are the main — and politically crucial — news outlets, advocates say.

On Nov. 13, political blogger Ítalo Eduardo Diniz Barros was shot four times by two men on a motorcycle in Governador Nunes Freire, in the northeastern state of Maranhão. He died before he could reach the hospital. On Nov. 21, another blogger in the same state, Orislandio Timóteo Araújo, was killed in the city of Buriticupu with a single gunshot to the head in front of his wife.

Three journalists killed in Brazil in the last year, from left: blogger Marcos de Barros Leopoldo Guerra, radio journalists Gleydson Carvalo and Djalma Santo da Conceição.

“It is easy for journalists in Brazil to be afraid,” said Mauri König, 49, a celebrated investigative reporter from the southern state of Paraná who was beaten with chains, strangled and left for dead while investigating the kidnapping of Brazilian children for military service in Paraguay in 2000. Journalists investigating crimes along Brazil’s often lawless borders are also particularly at risk.

“It is easy to decide not to approach the most dangerous stories,” he added. “But the best defense for a journalist is to simply publish. If you do not publish, then people will know you are scared and that they can intimidate you.”

König was forced to flee Brazil for Peru with his wife and 10-month-old son in 2012. He had begun receiving phone calls from people threatening to machine-gun his house after a series of reports he published on police corruption in Paraná, including one claiming that on-duty officers used police cars to visit brothels. He returned after two months, but his wife ended their marriage on Christmas Eve because she could not handle the fear, he said. In August, he was sacked by Gazeto do Povo, the state’s largest newspaper, as part of cutbacks brought on by Brazil’s financial crisis, putting him among the ranks of freelance journalists increasingly under threat.

Aside from death threats, many independent journalists find themselves deluged by lawsuits intended to stifle their reporting, although the situation has improved after the country’s censorious dictatorship-era Press Law was struck down in 2009. “The main purpose was to stop me publishing,” said Lúcio Flávio Pinto, 66, who has been sued 33 times in the last 28 years over articles in his solo bimonthly Jornal Pessoal newspaper in Belém, the capital of the Amazon state of Pará. “But they failed.”

Pinto said he refuses all advertising to remain uncompromised, and as a result barely makes enough money to survive. He last bought a car in 1987. “Poverty is the price of my independence,” he said. “The price may have been high, but it has been worth it.”

Metzker's unmarked grave, center, in a cemetery in Medina.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N. for Al Jazeera America

Back in the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais, Metzker was the latest of five journalists to have been murdered since 2011. “The principle underpinning it all is impunity,” said Kerison Lopes, the leader of a journalists’ union in the state.

In the Jequitinhonha valley, in the state's north, Sérgio Vasconcelos, 47, is in hiding. A successful journalist in the state capital, he moved to a town adjacent to Padre Paraíso 15 years ago to start the Gazeta de Araçuai newspaper.

He says he has suffered naked aggression for his work exposing criminality. In October, he says, he was openly attacked in a restaurant by two men who punched him and beat him with a chair while threatening to kill him.

He was forced to leave his home, has lost contact with his friends and cannot visit his 96-year-old father, who is in ill health. “I am fighting this battle alone,” he said. “But I do not have regrets.”

In Padre Paraíso, Bomfim, the blogger, sat in his small office in the corner of his home, with sturdy blue shutters shielding the room from sunlight. On his desk was a dated fax machine, camera and magnifying glass. He works alone and often unpaid, earning his income from occasional work as a real estate agent.

He is facing a lawsuit from a local businessman, Fábio Macedo, 50, over reporting that Macedo allegedly attempted to rape a 25-year-old woman. Bomfim has no idea if the suit will result in a fine or jail and cannot afford a lawyer. Others in the town have taunted him on the street about Metzker’s death but, despite being visibly stricken by what happened to his friend, he says he will continue to report.

“We are the servants of the people,” he said. “I will not shut up. I cannot shut up.”

Metzker's widow, Ilma Chaves Silva Bordes, with a copy of the newspaper he published, Atuação.
Bruno Jean / Estúdio N. for Al Jazeera America

After Metzker’s body was released, his family took it back to Medina, where it was carried up a cobbled street lined with fig trees to the Hilltop of Farewell cemetery and buried at midnight. There, the graves overlook a flow of tiled rooftops down to the trucks rolling past on the BR-116.

Some are grand marble tombs, others are hand-dug graves marked with wooden plaques and simple flowers bouquets. Metzker’s resting place is unmarked, a mound of uneven earth without any monument.

His wife, Ilma, who lost her first husband to cancer, has declined police protection, saying it is unnecessary. She said she feels strong, and she does not cry. “We cannot stay fallen,” she said. “Life is as it is at any moment. The past is just a story.”

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the surname of police detective Emerson Morais.