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Brazilian Activist Flooded With Death Threats After Newspaper Runs Phony Interview

Journalist and activist Leonardo Sakamoto. Youtube printscreen.

Journalist and activist Leonardo Sakamoto. Screencap: YouTube.

The well-known Brazilian journalist, teacher, and human rights activist Leonardo Sakamoto says he started receiving death threats after a small Brazilian newspaper published a fake interview with him earlier this month.

The newspaper Edição do Brasil (Brazil's Edition)—a shady publication from Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state—published the phony interview where Sakamoto supposedly says retirees are “useless to society.” Sakamoto says the fake interview was loosely based on a blog post he wrote in December.

In the text, titled “Three Ways of Convincing the Poor That Increasing the Minimum Wage Is Bad,” Sakamoto said the arguments used by the media, and some sectors of Brazilian society, to criticize the federal government's long-standing policy of increasing the minimum wage every year. Writing sarcastically, Sakamoto joked that Brazil should stop adjusting its pensions, too, if it makes sense to abandon hikes in the minimum wage.

Sakamoto says Edição do Brasil not only never interviewed him, but it also failed to understand his sarcasm, republishing things he wrote on his blog, as if he meant them in earnest.

Cover of the newspaper "Edição do Brasil" with the false declaration attributed to Sakamoto.

Cover of the newspaper “Edição do Brasil” with Sakamoto's photo and the headline “Political scientist says retirees are “useless to society.” Photo from Sakamoto's personal archive, used with permission.

On Facebook, he wrote that he's been receiving threats online since the fake interview was published:

Meus advogados estão cuidando do caso, mas, como previ no post, a situação pirou. Ameaças de agressão e morte têm circulado na rede. E memes mentirosos baseados na entrevista falsa passaram a, além de me criticar por algo que eu não disse, a fazer ameaças. Páginas de ódio tem compartilhado a informação e fomentado vingança contra esse jornalista que quer “reciclar idosos”. Dezenas de milhares de vezes.

Antes de sair do Brasil para vir a Genebra (onde estou para falar sobre como abolir o trabalho escravo no século 21 em um TEDx na ONU), cheguei a ser abordado na rua por um grupo exaltado. Nada aconteceu desta vez.

Não sou de reclamar, não. Mas a difusão desta mentira na rede pode acabar mal. Espero estar errado.

My lawyers are handling the case, but, as I predicted in the post, the situation has gotten worse: [there have been] threats of aggression and death threats have been circulating on the Internet. And [there are] misleading memes based on the false interview, criticizing me for something I didn't say, making threats. Hate pages have shared information and encouraged revenge against this journalist who wants to “recycle elderly people.” Tens of thousands of them.

Before leaving Brazil to come to Geneva (where I am [now] to talk about how to abolish slavery in the 21st century at a TEDx at the UN), I was approached on the street by an aggressive-looking group. Nothing happened this time.

I'm not of complaining, no. But spreading this lie on the Internet could end badly. I hope I'm wrong.

Sakamoto serves as the coordinator of the NGO Repórter Brasil, Brazil's leading organization defending and reporting on labor rights. Repórter Brazil regularly reports on companies that use slave labor and has received a series of human rights prizes.

Sakamoto, along with other left-wing activists and bloggers in Brazil, often face harassment online, being called “communists” and supporters of the current Brazilian government (which has been led by the center-left Workers’ Party since 2002). Sakamoto himself says he has many times been insulted in the street, though he tries to take it in good spirits (he even made a t-shirt bearing the most common insults he receives). He wrote on his blog:

Quem acompanha este blog sabe que, há tempos, sou perseguido em restaurantes, na rua, em aeroportos, dentro e fora do país – já tratei desse comportamento bizarro algumas vezes por aqui. Na maior parte do tempo, é divertido. O problema é quando as ações diretas acabam descambando para a violência ou as ameaças são executadas.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that, for a long time, I've been persecuted in restaurants, on the street, in airports, and in and outside the country. I've dealt with this bizarre behavior a few times here [on this blog]. Most of the time, it's fun. The problem is when it ends up sliding into violence or threats that are actually executed.

In a blog post in October of 2015, he described a few such cases:

Sakamoto wears a t-shirt with some of the prejudice and offences he hears everyday. Photo used with permission

Sakamoto wears a t-shirt with some of the prejudice and offences he hears everyday. Photo from Sakamoto's personal archive, used with permission.

Há algumas semanas, depois de ouvir um monte de coisa ruim de uma mulher no supermercado, não me dei por rogado e resolvi bater-papo. Ela se assustou, afinal de contas, essa não é a etiqueta de haters na internet: a gente tem que aceitar ser xingado e/ou xingar de volta. O que fazer, diante de um afável “querida, vamos conversar um pouco?
[…]
No ano passado, uma me reconheceu, abriu a janela do carro, gritou “volta pra Cuba, filho da puta”, e cuspiu na minha direção.
[…]
Já, há algumas semanas, um jovem do tamanho de um armário me acertou uma ombrada na rua que quase me desconjuntou para depois sair rindo com os amigos por ter batido no comunista.

A few weeks ago, after hearing a lot of bad things from a woman in the supermarket, I decided to chat. She was frightened. After all, this is not the haters’ etiquette on the Internet: we have to accept being called names and/or curse back. […]

Last year, one recognized me, opened the car window, yelled “go back to Cuba, you son of a bitch,” and spat in my direction. […]

A few weeks ago, a young man the size of a truck knocked into me, nearly dislocating my shoulder, and then walked on with his friends, laughing about having given it to the communist.

Brazilian Internet users have also shared memes (like the one pictured below) containing death threats directed at Sakamoto. The example below features the starred symbol of the Workers’ Party, and the caption reads, “This useless [man] will die soon. Sakamoto says the elderly are useless. Why spend on someone who's no longer useful to society, with so much public debt to pay? The best solution would be to establish an age, when those poor old folks should be shipped to the recycling plant.”

A meme containing a death threat to Sakamoto. Print made by Leonardo Sakamoto.

Meme shared anonymously online.

Violence Against Activists and Journalists in Brazil

Brazil is a dangerous country for journalists, especially for those working in the countryside. In 2015, a survey by the Press Emblem Campaign ranked Brazil 7th in the world, in terms of murdered journalists. (Seven died that year.) Two years earlier, Reporters Without Borders found that Brazil led Latin America in murdered journalists. Last year, the Organization of American States denounced Brazil for its ongoing violence against reporters.

Brazil also has the ignoble distinction of being the world's most dangerous place for environmental activists, according to the NGO Global Witness. The statistics would impress even the most accomplished killer: between 2002 and 2013, 448 environmental activists in Brazil were murdered—more than half the number of all environmental activists killed throughout the world during this period.

Expressing his solidarity with Sakamoto, journalist Alceu Castilho wrote that threats against him are “a warning to journalists all over Brazil”:

Sakamoto não é vítima de inocentes criadores de memes. É vítima de fascistas. E é como tais que eles precisam ser encarados. Não é preciso ser jornalista para combater o fascismo.
[…]
Enquanto isso, longe dos grandes centros, jornalistas menos conhecidos continuam sendo assassinados – e o número tem aumentado. Ou calados. Um colunista sergipano foi condenado por escrever uma crônica – uma ficção – sobre um desembargador coronelista. Assistimos a tudo isso sem a ênfase necessária. Como se fosse admissível a existência de liberdade de expressão em apenas algumas ilhas de democracia.

Sakamoto is not the victim of innocent meme creators. He's the victim of fascists. And it is as such that they need to be addressed. You don't have to be journalist to fight fascism. […]

Meanwhile, away from the big centers, lesser-known journalists continue to be killed, and the number is increasing—or [being] silenced. A columnist from the state of Sergipe was convicted for writing a chronicle—a work of fiction—about a landowner judge [a “colonel” who owns land and uses violence against anyone who challenges him]. We watched all this happen, and we did nothing [about it]. It was as if it's okay that the freedom of expression exists only in a few islands of democracy.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI) is calling for an investigation into the threats against Sakamoto, and the website Portal Imprensa contacted the newspaper responsible for the false interview, Edição do Brasil, asking for clarifications:

Após a repercussão da falsa entrevista, o jornal apagou a matéria de sua página na internet e publicou uma nota, alegando que contatou uma assessora do jornalista, identificada como Luíza Amália, que teria intermediado o contato e respondido a redação por e-mail.
“O Edição do Brasil analisou as respostas enviadas e o artigo em questão e acredita que houve má fé por parte da pessoa que respondeu, com provável intenção de prejudicar tanto o jornal quanto Leonardo Sakamoto”, disse.

After the impact of the false interview, the newspaper [Edição do Brasil] deleted the news story and issued a statement saying it dealt with a person named Luíza Amália, who claimed to have conducted the interview, dealing with the newsroom by email.

“Brazil's Edition analyzed the responses sent and the article in question and believes that there was bad faith on the part of the person who answered, with probable intent to harm both the newspaper and Leonardo Sakamoto,” said the newspaper.

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