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BRAZIL: Journalist Wages Solitary Battle in Amazon

Mario Osava

BELEM, Brazil, Jun 25 2007 (IPS) - Death threats, physical assaults and 32 lawsuits – this is what freelance journalist Lucio Flavio Pinto has faced as a result of the one-man battle he is waging in this northern Brazilian city, the main gateway to the Amazon jungle.

"I feel like Prometheus," says Pinto, who has published the "Jornal Pessoal" (Personal Journal) in Belem, the capital of the state of Pará, every two weeks since 1987. Corruption, land property fraud, and abuse of power by the leading local media group are the main targets of his investigative journalism, in a state that is notorious for the large number of political and social activists who are murdered.

Responding to the 18 lawsuits still pending against him takes up "80 percent of my time," he tells IPS. His enemies, he says, are trying to use the justice system to entangle him and divert his attention and energy away from his work, drastically reducing the time he has available to investigate and write, while increasing the possibility of some lapse in his defence.

The legal web in which he is enmeshed made it impossible for him to leave Belem to receive a prize in the United States in 2005, for fear of missing court dates and hearings, which could have serious consequences.

The situation reminds him of Prometheus, the hero of Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give to humans, and as punishment was chained to a mountain where an eagle would come down every night and eat his liver.

The mission of Pinto’s Jornal Pessoal which is a completely individual effort, is to report on events and issues that are ignored by the big media because of the economic or political interests of their owners.

Just 2,000 copies are printed and sold at newspaper stands, to "provide citizens with the information they need to reach decisions and to fight with the powerful in conditions of equality."

The paper carries no advertising and has no source of revenue beyond sales, which do not always cover the costs. The solitary mission that Pinto has taken on, of being an "annoying pebble in the shoes" of the powerful, is a difficult one. He does not accept financial support because credibility is his best weapon and requires total independence. He lives in a modest house and drives a 20-year-old car.

Jornal Pessoal is "a prison; a golden one but still a prison," he says. To defend himself, with some help from lawyer friends, he has had to study law on his own, and has become an expert in Brazil’s press laws. To investigate cases of business corruption, he learned how to analyse balance sheets and understand the "minutiae" of accounting, which enabled him to denounce many shady business deals or arrangements that hurt the local population.

Pinto did not choose this thorny path out of a lack of alternatives. In his 41-year career as a journalist, which began when he was 16, Pinto has won a number of prizes, including two international awards: the International Golden Dove for Peace Award (Colombe d’Oro per la Pace) from the Italian institute for international research Archivio Disarmo, in 1997, and the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2005. He is also the author of 10 books on the Amazon jungle region.

He had already gained a reputation as a reporter and writer with a deep knowledge of the Amazon and was writing for two major daily newspapers when he published, in September 1987, the first issue of Jornal Pessoal.

His paper was inspired by a similar initiative by Isidor Feinstein Stone, an iconoclastic investigative journalist from the U.S. whose independent I.F. Stone’s Weekly, published in Washington from 1953 to 1971, was regarded as highly influential.

The Jornal Pessoal emerged when the Belem daily O Liberal refused to publish an investigative report by Pinto in which he pointed to the involvement of two big businessmen in the murder of former congressman Paulo Fonteles, who as a lawyer defended poor farmers involved in land conflicts in the state of Pará. The newspaper’s owners were worried about losing advertising revenue if they printed the story.

Many local events and stories have only been covered by the Jornal Pessoal because they have involved powerful individuals or companies. These range from financial scandals and corporate corruption to the mysterious 1991 murder of a member of the local elite in Belem, which was related to money laundering and drug trafficking, as revealed by the Jornal Pessoal.

Months later, other newspapers, which initially kept silent on the murder, published the widow’s version that her husband had committed suicide. Pinto pointed out that this was impossible, because the fatal shot came from three metres away. The federal police later seized nearly a ton of cocaine near Belem from people with links to the killing.

The incident gave rise to "the saddest moment of my career," said the journalist. After a press conference with the police, Pinto announced that he would have an "off-microphone conversation" with the police commissioner in charge of the case. Other reporters initially said they wanted to participate, but when Pinto insisted that they promise to publish the content of the dialogue in their papers, "they all left."

Pinto frequently cites this incident to criticise today’s "tame" journalism, which he describes as a "toothless lion…ensnared by interests." The younger generations "do not know how to identify facts," preferring instead to editorialise or to work as news anchors, and many reporters keep information to themselves to use in their private consultancies, he complained.

His harshest criticism is aimed at the style of journalism practiced by the Maiorana group, which dominates the media in the state of Pará, owning newspapers and TV and radio stations. Pinto worked for the Maiorana group in the 1980s, and broke off relations over irreconcilable differences.

But his biggest battle is against the "colonisation" of the Amazon jungle, which he said is the victim of decisions reached outside of the region that do not take the welfare of the local population into account, but merely focus on supplying outside markets.

The state of Pará is the clearest illustration of this phenomenon. Major mining operations of iron ore, bauxite, manganese and other raw materials, as well as the huge Tucuruí hydroelectric dam, the second largest in Brazil and the fourth largest in the world, are operated by foreign corporations and mainly benefit markets abroad.

The energy produced by Tucuruí and sold at subsidised prices keeps down the cost of Brazil’s aluminium production, which accounts for 15 percent of Japan’s aluminium supplies, said Pinto.

In the 1970s, he closely followed the process by which the United States was gradually displaced by Japan as the most influential economic power in the Amazon jungle region. He took part in extensive prize-winning coverage on the region, when he was living in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, and after he returned to Belem in 1974, as correspondent for the O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, which he left in 1989.

"Lucio Flavio Pinto is a walking data bank on the history and stories of the Amazon," as well as a "model of rigorously independent journalism" and "responsible exercise of citizenship taken to the extreme," said Roberto Smeraldi, coordinator of the Friends of the Earth International&#39s Amazonia Programme.

It would be very useful "to put his knowledge and experience at the service of interesting initiatives for the development of the Amazon region," but he chose his "personal journalistic battle as his absolute top priority, assuming a declared solitude," he added.

Pinto’s talents could have a greater repercussion through alliances with like-minded movements or institutions, agreed Marcos Ximenes Ponte, executive director of the non-governmental Amazon Institute of Environmental Research (IPAM) and a former dean of the Federal University of Pará, where Pinto worked as a professor for seven years.

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