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When the Investigative Journalist Becomes a Target: Lessons From Brazil

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Patrícia Campos Mello did not want to be known as the journalist who was targeted by the president.

Although she had built a name for herself for her work covering conflict, global elections, disinformation campaigns, and internet culture, as a print journalist she was still able to work in relative anonymity.

That was until she ran an investigation into a network of marketing agencies being used to spread mass messages containing false information during Brazil’s elections. These services were allegedly being paid for by groups of businessmen who backed then-candidate Jaír Bolsonaro and who were buying “bundles” of false messages to be spread on WhatsApp. In the words of Campos Mello today, they had created “an assembly line of disinformation.”

The investigation earned her a number of enemies, some of them in high places. And later, when Bolsonaro’s son baselessly claimed she was offering sex in exchange for information about his father, the falsehood spread like wildfire through the ranks of the conspiracy theorists and right-wing supporters of the administration.

When the president himself went on live TV and repeated the allegation, things took a turn for the worse. “After that, my life became a nightmare. I had people yelling at me in the street, all kinds of threats, rape threats, porn videos with my face, not deep fake but cheap fake,” said Campos Mello, who is now a reporter-at-large at the leading Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

She was assigned a bodyguard when things were most toxic, changed her movements, agenda, and tried to carry on working, hoping it would blow over. The Committee to Protect Journalists awarded her their 2019 Press Freedom Award, calling the coordinated campaign against her “one of the most visible cases of doxxing in a year and election cycle in which dozens of journalists were harassed and criticized for their reporting.” The International Women’s Media Foundation condemned the “barrage of vitriolic attacks” against her as an attempt to silence women’s voices and harm press freedom.

“When I was in the middle of it… Have you ever had a nightmare that you are naked in the middle of a crowd and everyone else is wearing clothes? That’s how I felt every single minute of my life. People yelling, getting messages, people saying things on TV. I felt like I would never leave my house again,” she said.

Having reported on international conflicts without bodyguards or security, Campos Mello was frustrated that she needed support for “covering the elections in my country, a democratic country with no open conflict.” But she has since realized the attacks against her could have been against anyone, “this is how it works now. We are targets.”

When the online attacks continued, she decided to sue. She ultimately won, and says life is calmer since the former president lost his bid for re-election.

“The fact that they are no longer in power means they don’t have that structure so well-functioning,” she told GIJN. “Don’t get me wrong, they still have all their networks. Sometimes they get some specific journalists to attack, and that’s just part of their communications strategy to mobilize the base. Every now and then there’s some stuff… but it’s nothing compared to how it was between 2018 and 2021. It’s OK. It’s fine.”

This year, as she prepares to cover elections in the US, especially the online aspect of electoral campaigns and disinformation, she is just glad to be back behind the byline.

“I wanted my normal reporter life back, which is what I have now, so I feel very happy. I don’t take it too personally — it happened to me, it happened to other women here, maybe not that bad but very bad as well,” she said. “I just feel relieved that I can just do my work.”

GIJN: Of all the investigations you’ve worked on, which has been your favorite and why? 

Patrícia Campos Mello: In terms of investigative stories, I would have to say the whole series about disinformation campaigns and how they were being used to manipulate the elections in 2018. But there are other stories. I remember one of the projects we did was called World of Walls. We did a special multimedia project about refugees around the world in several places. The story that we did in Brazil was about this giant slum that was next to the highway. All the middle-class people from São Paulo would take this road to go to the beach at the weekend so they built a wall so that nobody would see it. People were driving to the beach and had no idea that just behind this wall were 30,000 people, dominated by a drug gang. I really liked that story, we spent a lot of time there.

GIJN: What are the biggest challenges in terms of investigative reporting in your country?

PCM: It depends on the administration of course, but over the last few years, we had a huge decrease in transparency. With our FOIA act, they started finding loopholes not to give us the information. Also, they were not publishing the public schedule of state officials, [so there has been] this whole war against transparency. This was very difficult in the last few years, it’s something that we had conquered, with our FOIA act, and it was being undermined.

Then of course, there is the whole targeting of women which is huge in Brazil, India, the Philippines, and so many other places. It’s not something that we learned in college — that this would be part of the job — but apparently, now it is.

And then also judicial harassment. We have more and more freelancers, but if you don’t have an employer who gives you legal assistance, so many journalists stop investigating because they are scared of being sued, and they don’t have a lawyer.

GIJN: What’s been the greatest challenge that you’ve faced in your time as an investigative journalist? 

PCM: I think I have been pretty lucky in my life. I had really good mentors. I guess one of the challenges that we are all facing now is that the current state of journalism rewards something that is not investigative journalism. Investigative reporting takes time and it’s not necessarily super popular. It’s not going to be among the most popular stories, leading to clicks. One of the challenges is what we do… it takes time, it’s difficult, and it’s not necessarily sexy. I had a friend who had this joke — ‘just attach a video of a missile destroying a penguin so that people are going to read it.’ It’s not a popular topic. It’s super necessary, but I’m not sure if the newsrooms value it so much.

GIJN: What is your best tip for interviewing? 

PCM: This does not work for TV but it works when you are writing stories. I was always tempted to try to make people super comfortable in terms of not having awkward silences. If I asked something and the person looked like they did not know, I would always try to help, to say something. And I learned from a colleague that sometimes when you leave the person with their silence, that’s when you get really true answers. Sometimes it’s important to wait for the person to think, in their  awkward silence. That’s when you get some really important answers.

GIJN: What is a favorite reporting tool, database, or app that you use in your investigations?

PCM: There is a specific one created by two young Brazilians — Palver — It’s a huge database of public WhatsApp groups, the ones you can enter using a link, and Telegram channels and groups, which are also public. It’s a dashboard where you can research. It’s all anonymized, you can’t tell who is saying what. But you can search and research so many things: what piece of information is going viral, what’s the topic, what’s the sentiment, you can search into audio and videos because it transcribes. So if you want a thermometer of what is going on in the country, or in an election, what kind of false narrative is gaining traction… I have been using this since the 2022 election. It’s really great. It’s not open but they do, on a case-by-case basis, open it for journalists.

Campos Mello, third from the left, at the “Journalism Under Attack” panel at the 2019 Abraji conference in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Alice Vergueiro, Abraji used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

GIJN: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten thus far in your career and what words of advice would you give an aspiring investigative journalist? 

PCM: I had a very good piece of advice from my second boss, who was a woman. And she said: if you want to be a journalist you must listen much more than you speak. You are there to listen, not to speak or express your feelings or opinions. If you are a reporter, you have to learn to really listen to people. This is something I always try to keep in mind, and when people ask me I say the same thing. I think it’s important. I think it’s useful nowadays because people are so focused on themselves and giving their opinions, but if you are a journalist you have to listen, to absorb stuff. The main thing is to listen and investigate. It’s not about what you think.

GIJN: Who is a journalist you admire, and why?

PCM: Maria Ressa, because she’s not only courageous but she’s an excellent reporter, really good at digging stuff up. There are a few female journalists in Brazil, one of them Dorrit Harazim. She’s much older, she was this amazing reporter, she still is, she is very complete, a good person. I admire journalists not only for what they do as journalists but what they are as people. Also Miriam Leitão who specialized in economics. She was tortured during the military dictatorship, she is super smart, she has been harassed by the right and by the left. These two are the anti-influencers: they are focused on reporting, listening to others, investigating.

GIJN: What is the greatest mistake you’ve made and what lessons did you learn?

PCM: It was a long time ago, but when I was really in the beginning of my career I had to write about this Brazilian racing driver, Ayrton Senna, who had just died. He had an accident in a specific curve of a circuit. I was writing the story, I was in a hurry, and I didn’t re-read it or check. And I said he died on a different curve, which was absurd. Every single person in Brazil knew the name of the curve. It was so obvious and public and somehow no one noticed and it got published and I remember my father called me and said: ‘How can you do that? How can you get that wrong?’ And I am thinking that is when mistakes happen. When you think ‘I know that. I am not going to read it for the third time, the fourth time. Or double-check it.’ I was so embarrassed, it was such an embarrassment, that it was something I learned. Have you read it for the second time? Right. The third time? The fourth time? Triple-check it because there is always going to be something wrong.

GIJN: How do you avoid burnout in your line of work?

PCM: How do I avoid burnout? I don’t! But I think something that might exacerbate our burnout is social media, so one of the things I try to do is when I am in the middle of being attacked or harassed online is, I don’t read anything. I do a social media detox. I never respond anyway, I don’t respond to anything, I don’t engage, but if there is something very controversial, say you publish a story then get all this backlash, then I just stop. Stop reading it, because it gets really toxic.

GIJN: What about investigative journalism do you find frustrating, or do you hope will change in the future? 

PCM: I’m not under any illusions that the stuff we do is going to change things. But I still keep a tiny hope that some things may change. When you publish a story, it gets attention for five minutes and public officials say ‘This is absurd, this has to change, there have to be changes in the law or justice has to be done.’ Then, after five minutes everybody forgets and nothing happens. But then again, perhaps it’s just our vanity hoping that anything will change. You can’t think about this when you are doing the work, you just have to do the work. But I still have a tiny hope that people will pay attention for more than five minutes, and that it could change something.

Laura Dixon GIJN Associate EditorLaura Dixon is a senior editor at GIJN and a freelance journalist from the UK. She has reported from Colombia, the US, and Mexico, and her work has been published by The Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She has received fellowships from the IWMF and the Pulitzer Center.

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