Brazilian investigative journalists attacked

The organization Repórter Brasil has suffered several threats and attacks in the past few days, both physically and online, in what seems like an attempt to silence their investigations.

Irregularities and use of slaves in the cattle industry has been returning topics in Repórter Brasil's 20 year long work.

Last week, the website of the Brazilian investigative journalism NGO, Repórter Brasil, was attacked and forced offline. The initial attack was followed by an emailed demand to remove investigative reports from 2003 to 2005, which included several investigations of the Brazilian cattle industry.

As the organization refused to remove articles, attacks continued. Their offices also suffered an attempted break-in on the following day, which was prevented by neighbours. The website attacks have continued this week, and have been reported to Brazilian police.

“These serious criminal attacks on a prominent representative of Brazilian civil society needs to be stopped and the freedom of expression and safety of staff to be restored” says Ellen Ribeiro at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

“We expect a prompt and thorough investigation of these events, sending a clear signal that such attempts of intimidation and silencing of reporters will not be tolerated. These and similar attacks affect the entire civil society in Brazil, which is experiencing increased level of threats and a shrinking space in which to operate,” she says.

Ribeiro praises the high quality of the work delivered by Repórter Brasil.

Their last report on slavery on Brazilian cattle farms, which also exposed links to the cattle and meat packing major JBS, received broad international coverage. Repórter Brasil’s incisive investigations often attract international attention , in particular those linked to the cattle sector.

The attackers have in particular communicated demands that Repórter Brasil delete files from their work in the period 2003-2005. In this period, Repórter Brasil was involved in many cases, but most famously their work regarding slavery, human rights abuses and deforestation linked to cattle operations. This work led to the establishment of the Brazilian “blacklist” for slave labour, which is still in use.

Below is Repórter Brasil's own account of the situation in a press release issued on 13 January. It is published in full to make it publicly available, seeing as their website is currently under attack and down on an irregular basis.

Repórter Brasil under attack; threats include demands to remove reports

Repórter Brasil has been targeted by a series of online attacks over the last days, culminating in its website crashing and being unavailable for readers. Attackers have threatened to continue this criminal action if reports are not removed.

After a series of attacks succeeded in crashing the website for some hours on January 6, Repórter Brasil received an anonymous email in Portuguese stating: “As u may have noticed by now, there were some technical issues over the last day. To not face the same problems again, remove reports in the 2003, 2004 and 2005 folders” [translated by Repórter Brasil’s team].

As Repórter Brasil did not comply – nor will it comply with any attempt of illegal constraint, especially one that represents self-censorship – the attacks continued. Every single day.

On Thursday morning, there was an attempt to physically invade the organization’s office. Since some neighbors showed up, the breaking of the office’s entrance was not successful, but repairs will be needed. Security was also reinforced.

On Friday, January 8, attackers sent another email, this time with an ultimatum: “We will wait until January 11 for you to comply with our demands…” [translated by Repórter Brasil’s team]. And on Monday 11 the attacks resumed with full force.

Repórter Brasil is not new to attacks – the organization is constantly harassed by those discontent with our work, demanding reports are taken off the air. At the moment, its is not possible to affirm whether one of them is behind these attacks or if the goal here is to simply keep the website unavailable. This will be the object of careful investigation by competent authorities.

Repórter Brasil’s online security team has been able to neutralize these actions, but since attackers often change tactics access to the website has been unstable.

With the help of the organization’s lawyers, occurrence reports were submitted to the São Paulo Civil Police. Repórter Brasil is also reaching out to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF, in Portuguese), among other competent institutions, and will closely follow the investigations.

In 2021 the organization’s journalism work reaches a 20-year mark. Over these two decades, it has been internationally recognized and awarded for covering environmental crimes and human rights violations.

For instance, on January 4, Repórter Brasil published a journalistic investigation on slave labor in the beef supply chain which had huge impact abroad, including reports in The Guardian, Bloomberg and The Thompson Reuters Foundation.

If, on one hand, attacks like these are a seal stating the quality of the organization’s work, on the other, they are an alert to other news agencies and the press in general for a new kind of harassment: censorship by online violence.