Since 1987 Lúcio Flávio Pinto has published his own one-man bimonthly newspaper in the Brazilian state of Pará, Jornal Pessoal.
His independent coverage of the plunder of the Amazon, shady dealings by prominent families, and government corruption earned him national and international accolades over the years, as well as many prominent enemies.
Pinto has continued his work in spite of numerous death threats, a beating, and dozens of lawsuits that have left him in precarious circumstances.
On January 22, 2005, a big headline filled the front page of Diário do Pará, the second biggest newspaper of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. “The journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto has been beaten and threatened by the executive director of the newspaper O Liberal, Ronaldo Maiorana and by his bodyguards,” the headline blared.
Four days before, Pinto, an independent journalist who doggedly writes about the plunder of the Amazon, shady dealings by prominent families and officials, and government corruption, had published a story about the murky finances within the media group Organizações Romulo Maiorana, which owned O Liberal.
Unsurprisingly, O Liberal, the most-read publication in the region, published nothing about the beating.
Pinto, who owns a small alternative newspaper in Belém, the regional capital of the state of Pará in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, had made many enemies in his career. They had already tried everything to muzzle him. They sued him. They sent him death threats. And now, finally, they beat him. Only death could effectively silence him, but by 2005 he had become too prominent to be murdered. Pinto was then, and is now, widely regarded as the most important journalist in northern Brazil.
It was the first time he was physically assaulted, but not the first time that his work as a journalist brought him problems with the powerful Maiorana family. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Between 1992 and 2005 Pinto received 33 lawsuits. Fifteen of them were from the Maioranas, the others from businessmen, judges, and politicians. Some alleged moral damage, some material loss, and one was a criminal suit. Even so, he continued to write about deforestation, land thieves, drug trafficking, and corruption. The plan, Pinto told Mongabay in one of six recent phone conversations, was to silence him by making his life difficult and forcing him to spend all his time defending himself.
But the tactic backfired. He won most of the suits, sometimes writing his own defense and having his lawyer simply sign the document for him. And although the beating left him with bruises on his face, back, and torso near his liver and kidneys, it ultimately served as a turning point. The case attracted a lot of national and international attention and put pressure on his accusers. He hasn’t been sued since.
“They could not prove I was wrong. Now they changed the strategy and are trying to ignore me,” Pinto said.
Nevertheless, four of the lawsuits are still ongoing in the very slow pace of the Brazilian justice system — one from a judge and the other three from the Maiorana family. If he were to lose all of them, Pinto would have to pay almost $350,000 in fines — a sum he does not have.
“I can be surprised by a court decision any time. They would be lethal for my work,” said Pinto.
Pinto’s “Personal Newspaper”
Since 1987 Pinto has published his own one-man bimonthly newspaper called Jornal Pessoal, which translates as “Personal Newspaper.” It is a small but fearless enterprise that sells around 2,000 copies, regularly upsetting the local elite in Belém. He is a kind of green I.F. Stone, the legendary American independent journalist.
“I never thought it would last for so long. In the beginning, I planned to write it for three years, no more than that. Now, after 29 years it ruined me, I’m broke, it kept me away from my long-term projects, but I kept doing it,” Pinto said. “The only way to stop me is to kill me.”
What keeps him going is the same thing that made him start, he said: to publish what nobody else wants to print.
When he started Jornal Pessoal he was already an accomplished journalist. He had won one Esso prize in 1985, the Brazilian equivalent of the Pulitzer, and received an honorable mention earlier. He had been a local TV commentator and had worked for almost all of Brazil’s main national publications. But in those roles he found he could not be completely independent. And that was what he needed to be in a place dominated by two family-owned media groups that have strong personal relationships with government officials.
In 1987, Pinto investigated the murder of the lawyer Paulo Fontaneles by two gunmen. Fontaneles was a former state congressman who defended posseiros (small farmers) from grileiros (land thieves). After three months of investigations, Pinto tried to publish at O Liberal, but the story raised suspicion that some elite families might be involved in the murder, and the newspaper refused to run the story.
Without any place to publish his story, Pinto decided to create his own media. Ironically, the first edition of Jornal Pessoal was printed in the Maioranas’ company printing press as favor.
At the time, Pinto was at peace with the powerful family. For more than 20 years, he wrote for O Liberal and cultivated a strong relationship with Romulo Maiorana, the founder of the family’s media group and the father of Ronaldo, with whom he would later tangle. It was a two way relationship. The elder Maiorana gave journalistic freedom to Pinto in exchange for the credibility and respectability that his name gave to O Liberal. Everything would change a couple years after the death of the regional media mogul in 1989.
“When I started to work at O Liberal, in 1989, Lúcio had already left. His name was not mentioned in the newsroom after the lawsuits began, but everybody read his newspaper in secret,” Maria do Socorro Furtado Veloso, a professor at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte who wrote her doctoral thesis about Jornal Pessoal, told Mongabay.
Amazon: the Green Sicily
Pinto often quotes Euclides da Cunha, a Brazilian writer from the early twentieth century who was overwhelmed by the Amazon’s magnificence. He described the Amazon as the final unwritten page of Genesis that God had left to men to write.
But what men created is a place Pinto once called “the Green Sicily,” where independent journalists cannot work without being harassed. He likes to say that he does not pick a fight; he only reports the facts without regard for the consequences. And in Pará, the consequences may include not only arrests but also death threats, murder, or if you are too important to die, lawsuits. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), six journalists were murdered in Brazil last year. It was the third deadliest country in 2015, behind Syria and France.
“I lost count of how many lawsuits I had,” Augusto Barata, a political blogger based in Belém, told Mongabay. “They institutionalized judicial censorship.”
Barata considers himself an easy target because he works alone and has no political connections. “There are some names that I am forbidden by court decision to write in my blog,” he said.
He credits Pinto with breaking the regional monopoly on information previously held by the two big media companies in Pará. “His newspaper helps democracy to breathe,” Barata said.
In many cases, however, the rules of democracy have been used against Pinto.
Since the lawsuits began in 1992, he only lost one suit, filed by a man he accused in print of being the biggest land thief in Brazil and “perhaps even the world.” In 2012, after twelve years of judicial battles, a judge found him guilty of moral damage for calling the businessman Cecílio do Rego Almeida a “land pirate” in a 1999 article about Almeida’s claims on a tract of forest the size of Belgium in the Xingu Valley of Pará. Pinto’s article said the land belonged to the state and that the documents proving Almeida’s ownership were fabricated.
In 2013 Pinto was forced to pay a court-ordered settlement of $7,000 to the family of the businessman, who had died five years earlier. He did not have the money at the time. His newspaper has a small circulation and accepts no advertising because he thinks it could undermine his absolute editorial freedom. So Pinto turned to the internet for help.
In a wave of solidarity, several journalists and former newsroom colleagues shared Pinto’s manifesto about the saga. He raised enough money to cover the settlement and eventually had to ask people to stop donating. Later, in a different legal process, Brazilian courts ruled against Almeida’s land claims, proving Pinto’s thesis.
“He could be a rich man today,” Manuel Dutra, a journalism teacher at Universidade Federal do Pará in Belém and a former colleague of Pinto, told Mongabay. “[I]nstead he chose not to make any kind of concession.”
The decision was costly. He is now 66 years old and far from retirement because he stopped paying for social security more than a decade ago (something independent small businesspeople can opt out of in Brazil). He makes no more than $300 per month from his newspaper and rarely charges for lectures. He said he does the cleaning in his house and gave his car to his brother.
His humble condition is not what you might expect for a man recognized internationally for his work. In addition to the Esso, he won the Colombe d’Oro per la Pace from the Italian NGO Archivio Disarmo in 1997 and the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2005. In 2014 the French NGO Reporters Without Borders dubbed him an “information hero”.
But he was unable to receive the CPJ prize in the United States. “[A]lso missing from tonight’s award ceremony will be Lucio Flavio Pinto, 56, a newspaper editor in Brazil’s Amazon region. He’s not in prison, but the corrupt businessmen and local officials he writes about have filed so many harassing lawsuits against him that he dare not leave his home: One missed court appearance would give authorities an excuse to put him in jail,” a Washington Post editorial titled “Endangered Journalists” stated at the time.
Even so, the honors have served him well in protecting him from the worst fates of Brazilian journalists. “All the national and international prizes helped to create a symbolical shield around him and make him safer. Any crime against him would have a strong repercussion,” said Dutra.
Pinto thinks Brazilian media largely ignores the Amazon. For a long time, the media only covered the exotic, such as a wild animal killing a man. Even today, ties between the national economy and the forest go unreported.
“Fifty kilometers from here [Belém] there is an aluminum factory that is Brazil’s largest single energy consumer,” Pinto said. “Nobody talks about that.”
Trained as a sociologist at the Universidade de São Paulo, he sees the region through a kind of Marxist lens. He argues that Brazil has a colonial relationship with the Amazon, pointing to cattle ranching as an example. Traditionally ranching is used in Brazil to occupy new territories. It is also a cheap way to make money, because the costs are very low, and it does not require many employees. The ranchers clear forest, move cattle in, and bring the land into the national economy. It brings no regional development and the money does not stay in Pará because most of the producers are from outside.
Similarly, as many observers have pointed out, the huge investments in dams, mineral exploration, and other extractive industries in the Amazon have largely been made to meet international or southeastern Brazilian demand — never local demand.
“The twenty-first century began in 1973, not in 2001,” Pinto said, referring to the global energy crisis. “It started with energy shortage, with the consciousness that it is expensive and scarce — and the Amazon is the world’s biggest reserve of energy.”
This worldview sometimes drives Pinto to an unconventional understanding of events. For instance, he sees the main problem with Belo Monte, the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, as being economic, not ecological. “The environmentalists broke up with me for this, but it is true,” he said.
In 2001, during the controversial dam’s planning phase, after several disputes on ecological grounds, the developers diminished the size of Belo Monte’s water reservoir. This made the reservoir too small to produce enough energy to support the size and cost of the dam. The whole project became uneconomical, according to Pinto, and Belo Monte will now require government subsidies or will have to build another lake further up the river. Ultimately, Pinto believes the economic error will lead to more environmental damage, and his reporting proved that Belo Monte is simply a bad project.
“The economic argument does not attract NGOs or too much sympathy, but Jornal Pessoal‘s editorial guidelines are the facts. I don’t care who I will bother. I want to know if it is true or not,” he said.
That is what he has been doing his whole career, but after 29 years the journalist admits he is tired.
“I would like it if the newspaper had become unnecessary. When you are 66, you start to envision what you will not have more time to do,” Pinto said. “I am doing it because the dynamics of the forest are fast and there is so much omission that I am forced to write.”