As one of the few international students in Medill, when asked why attending college abroad, my answer is often that I wanted to have access to a top-notch education. A deeper response, however, would also add that I come from Brazil, one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the world, and if I aspire to work in the country after college, I must go back home armed with as many assets and skills as possible.
In 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Brazil as the 11th deadliest country for journalists, ranking it among countries currently undergoing civil wars and dictatorships, such as Iraq and Syria. As if things were not severe enough for communicators, this past weekend Brazilians elected Jair Bolsonaro – a far-right congressman and former army captain who is known for expressing his strong views on human rights and immigration and defending the relaxing of gun laws – their new president. And yes, we have seen this before. In April, The Guardian even referred to him as the “Trump of the tropics.” The similarities Bolsonaro shares with the American president are many, but lately one characteristic has been in the spotlight: his antipathy toward the press.
Two weeks ago, Brazil’s leading newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, published a front-cover investigation that revealed businessmen were allegedly bankrolling a campaign to spread fake news against his opponent on Whatsapp. After the episode, Bolsonaro called the organization “the biggest provider of fake news in Brazil” and declared that the newspaper “is over.” Subsequently, his electorate threatened Folha journalists, sending the newspaper more than 220,000 Whatsapp messages in less than half a week, which resulted in an editorial asking for police protection. His comments led prominent Brazilian politicians, such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to speak up for the free press. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric mimics Trump’s constant attacks on media organizations, as when his American counterpart referred to news outlets like ABC, The New York Times and CNN as “the enemy of the people,” or when he described the latter, along with BuzzFeed, as “fake news.”
What has been happening in Brazil and in the U.S. unfortunately represents only a few examples of the menace journalists face daily in order to report the truth. On the first week of October, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, and his criticism toward the Saudi royal family is being speculated as the crime’s motivation. Moreover, just like the 2015 terrorist attack against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which resulted in 12 deaths, five journalists were killed at a mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland earlier this year. Not to mention the record number of journalists incarcerated in places such as Turkey and Egypt for suspicious reasons.
Luckily, even in the middle of the mediatic chaos, there are still journalists whose work is recognized. Just last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend for the second time the presentation of the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, named after the Medill alum who became, in 2014, the first American to be killed by ISIS. However, unlike last year when Hannah Dreier accepted the award and shared her experience as an AP correspondent covering Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela, this year’s awardees were not there to accept it. The medal was accepted on the behalf of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo by Reuters Myanmar Bureau Chief Antoni Slodkowski, since both Burmese journalists were condemned to seven years in prison for breaching “official secrets” after reporting on the alleged killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims. Despite Medill’s effort to acknowledge brave journalistic practices, as Slodkowski himself put it, we should not only recognize the good work fearless journalists do around the world, but fight to guarantee their well-being.
Although this whole “biased media” narrative employed by authoritarian politicians like Trump, Maduro and Bolsonaro is quickly taking over the world, well-established, reliable news organizations are now more needed than ever. At a time in which the dissemination of fake news on social media may have the power to manipulate public opinion and the number of journalists jailed for doing their job increases every year, defending the free press has become a responsibility of every citizen. Journalists are constantly at risk, and paying homage on Twitter whenever a tragedy happens is not enough. More than ever, every one of us, either a civilian or an international organization, needs to work hard to detect and denounce possible violations against the press, so that we can guarantee journalists can do the same for us.
Thousands of protesters are shouting “Not him!” as they march against Jair Bolsonaro, their right-wing president-elect in Brazil. pic.twitter.com/LOFc8SSQUK— AJ+ (@ajplus) November 2, 2018