It was a year of significant transformation in the Portuguese-speaking world. This was especially true in Brazil, where corruption scandals landed top officials in jail and propelled a far right-wing politician into the presidency. This year, Lusophone journalists not only exposed corrupt practices via innovative projects, they also revealed sexual abuse and abortion challenges. Breno Costa, GIJN’s Portuguese editor, has selected some of the best investigations from 2018.
Gangs that run drugs in Rio de Janeiro are known for sowing violence, but in recent years, paramilitary groups known as “milícias” have allegedly taken the problem from bad to worse. The groups — typically made up of former police officers and supported by local officials — are ostensibly formed to fight crime but reportedly act much like the drug gangs, including trafficking illegal drugs. Their growth, according to reports, have resulted in widespread extortion of local service providers and slum residents, as well as threats and violence against civilians.
Four reporters from The Intercept Brasil analyzed 6,475 anonymous phone calls made during 2016 and 2017 to the Disque-Denuncia, a service that receives tips and leads from the public. The reporters found that allegations against militias are actually more prominent and threatening than Rio’s notorious drug gangs. Sixty-five percent of the calls reporting incidents pointed to the militias.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected president, was a phenomenon in South American politics this year. Replicating the populism and rhetoric behind US President Donald Trump’s rise, the ultra-conservative congressman filled a power vacuum created by the fall of the leftist Workers’ Party. The widespread mistrust of traditional politicians that spread after revelations of Operation Car Wash — a huge corruption scandal that landed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and other top officials in jail — contributed to Bolsonaro’s success. The president-elect has managed to present himself as incorruptible, promising a new and honest way of doing politics in a corrupt region.
But during his electoral campaign, the Brazilian weekly magazine Veja exposed a hidden side of the ex-military leader who will rule Brazil. The reporters gained access to a secret lawsuit against Bolsonaro, which was filed by his ex-wife, and spent a month digging into what they found in court documents. They verified evidence and interviewed sources to show how Bolsonaro allegedly threatened to kill his ex-wife and concealed Electoral Court assets. The candidate allegedly received money of unknown origin and, according to his ex-wife, stole a safe with her jewelry and money worth $400,000. Bolsonaro’s supporters and the candidate himself began a concerted effort to discredit Veja and its reporters as “fake news.” Still, the revelations are expected to haunt Bolsonaro and his new administration.
Brazilian President Michel Temer is nearing the end of his term in office with unusually low popularity. He directly benefited from Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, and took the helm of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, known as one of Brazil’s most corrupt parties. It was not long before prosecutors charged him with crimes related to money laundering, corruption and conspiracy. But Temer was protected by a majority in Congress, and the lawmakers never authorized criminal proceedings against him, despite formal denunciation by the country’s Attorney General .
It was up to journalists, then, to expose the extent of Temer’s corruption to the public. Piauí magazine’s reporters used public registry records to identify the extensive assets belonging to the president and his family. They found that these assets grew five-fold over 20 years, including a $9 million spike in São Paulo properties. Meanwhile, Temer’s salary as a member of Congress was nowhere near the worth of the real estate he was able to acquire as a public servant. Most of the real estate linked to the president was registered in relatives’ names.
Sandra Machado Soares from Portugal’s RTP exposed how some of the country’s parliamentarians provide fraudulent residential information to receive extra funds from public coffers. Instead of registering residential properties in Lisbon, they indicated more distant addresses, where they didn’t actually live, obligating the Portuguese Congress to pay extra costs to cover travel expenses. In some cases, the extra cash lawmakers receive amounted to 1,800 euros per month. The reporter cross-referenced disbursement data, declared income and real estate records to identify cases of abuse.
Investigative stories that implicate judges in Brazil, especially those on the highest court in the country, tend to result in moral damages lawsuits and backlash from the justice system. Regardless, over one and half years, dogged reporters from Crusoé magazine collected bits and pieces of a fairly complex puzzle. They were able to show, through documents and detailed research, that the president of Brazil’s supreme court — who has a monthly salary of $10,000 — has for years received monthly deposits of $30,000 from the bank account of his wife, a private lawyer. Half of this additional amount was then transferred to his former wife and the rest was managed by an assistant. The transactions passed through a small bank in Brasilia, which didn’t report the suspicious activities to authorities as required by law. It just so happens that Toffoli is presiding over 13 lawsuits involving that very bank, which also approved a $250,000 loan to him in 2011 with below-market interest. Despite the expose, Toffoli still has his job, demonstrating the culture of impunity at the highest levels of the Brazilian justice system.
A game-changing investigative story in Brazilian sports, conducted by TV Globo’s reporter Joana de Assis over four months, began from a specific, if obscure, lead. In 2016, a month before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it was announced that a coach of the Brazilian men’s gymnastics team, Fernando de Carvalho Lopes, was dismissed because of a sexual abuse allegation. As De Assis revealed, the only information she had to go on was that the abused child was a boy. It would take hundreds of calls to find out who the child was, but De Assis would eventually reveal that at least 40 current and former athletes admitted, after years of silence and fear, that they were also victimized by Lopes when they were children. The story received third place at this year’s Latin American Prize for Investigative Journalism. Lopes is still under investigation by Brazilian authorities, who are expected to file a formal complaint against him for the crimes committed.
Except in cases of rape, having an abortion in Brazil can result in a four-year prison sentence. Recently, the Brazilian Supreme Court allowed for abortions in cases of anencephalic fetuses, and is considering decriminalizing the procedure in the first trimester. Under these circumstances, and with abortion drugs banned in Brazil, some have founded a secret WhatsApp group that helps women abort at home. BBC reporter Nathalia Passarinho followed the virtual group for five months, seeing how participants give each other support, advice and step-by-step procedure information. According to the story, some 300 abortions were performed by members of the group over three years. The story dove deep into the group dynamics and highlighted individual cases while protecting the women’s identity.
Breno Costa is editor of GIJN em Português. He’s the founder and head of Journalistic Development at BRIO, a hub for professional journalists and students in Brazil which offers mentoring and consulting for journalism projects. Breno is a former investigative reporter for Brazil’s Folha de S.Paulo and has published in The Intercept Brasil.