“The pandemic and the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world have shown that journalism is necessary. In the middle of a health disaster and an avalanche of disinformation, accurate information is precious”.
The quote is from Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello delivering the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture.
She has published a series of investigative reports on the rise of disinformation in Brazil and has been the target of harassment campaign by president Jair Bolsonaro’s allies. In her lecture she described harassment but also stressed her conviction that independent journalism is the tool to fight misinformation. Talking about harassment, she especially stressed women journalists’ situation.
“The situation is especially critical for female journalists. We are the target of defamation campaigns stimulated and amplified by the government. Much more frequently than our male colleagues, we have our parents and our children intimidated, our appearance mocked, our addresses and phone numbers exposed, and we are subject to violent threats both online and in the real world.”
“I have been the target of this hate machine since 2018, when I started writing about the political use of WhatsApp and other disinformation tools to manipulate public opinion. In the beginning, I got threatening messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In one of those messages on Facebook, a guy said: “If you want your son to be safe, leave the country. This is not a threat; it’s a warning.” My son was 6 then.”
“Trolls then started sending messages to WhatsApp groups of Bolsonaro supporters, telling them the address, date, and time of events I would participate in. They urged Bolsonaro followers to go to the events and confront me. They started to call my cell phone. “You’re a communist slut; I’m heading to your house now to punch you in the face,” they said.”
“We gathered the most extreme threats and sent them to the police. My newspaper decided I should have a bodyguard for a while, just in case. I covered the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I never considered hiring a security consultant. I was in São Paulo, covering the elections, and I needed one.”
“In February last year, the hate machine started a massive online sexual harassment campaign. Thousands of memes circulated on the internet in which my face appears in pornographic montages, calling me a prostitute and alluding to sexual organs. I get messages from people saying that I offer sex in exchange for scoops and that I should be raped.”
“I recently won lawsuits for moral damages against president Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker, for repeatedly stating or implying that I offer sex in exchange for scoops. They are appealing the verdict.”
She stressed that her situation is not an isolated problem but many respected journalists in Brazil and globally are being attacked with sexist slurs and threats just because they are doing their job.
But Campos Mello passionately argued in favour of staying cool and sticking to balanced reporting.
“Amid these intimidation campaigns, it is tempting for us, journalists, to see the government as the enemy. But that is precisely what we should not do. We should fight intimidation with our best weapon – fair and balanced reporting.”
“We can’t rely on the owners of the modern public square, the internet platforms, to prevent disinformation from creating or exacerbating health and political crises. We have seen how they enforce their own rules arbitrarily.”
“Professional journalists are the ones who are capable of uncovering the truth and getting it out there. It won’t be easy, because we face unfair competition. Disinformation goes viral – accurate information does not.”
“Simply showing evidence, exposing hidden information, finding original documents, and getting to primary sources, carefully investigating in order not to make mistakes, and correcting errors – that is the best we can do to spread quality information. That’s how we can fight injustice, without compromising journalistic values.”