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On the beat in the Amazon

Brazilian journalist Lucio Flavio Pinto has spent more than four decades trying to right wrongs while staying alive and out of jail.

May 18, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

BELEM, BRAZIL — In 42 years of reporting about the Amazon, Lucio Flavio Pinto has been cursed, kicked, beaten, repeatedly threatened with death and sued 33 times. More than half of these legal dust-ups were instigated by his former employer, O Liberal, the region's biggest, most important media company, whose late family patriarch used to be one of Pinto's best friends.

With ex-friends like O Liberal, Pinto hardly needs enemies, though he's got plenty of those too: Politicians, who've been trying for years without success to shut him up or buy him off. The Brazilian military, a frequent target of Pinto's sharp pen. Cattlemen, ranchers and loggers, intent on deforesting the Amazon River basin and converting it into pasture lands and soybean fields, a process that could help feed a protein-hungry planet but, say scientists, would dump billions of tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Then there's the Brazilian state hydroelectric company Electronorte, gearing up to build more dams that would spur job growth but swamp the land and disrupt the lives of subsistence farmers and fishermen. And multinational conglomerates, siphoning off rich veins of aluminum ore, timber and iron ore from the world's largest rain forest.

During his long career, the 58-year-old maverick reporter -- who has compared himself to the ancient fire-bestowing Greek deity Prometheus but still refuses to carry a cellphone -- has tangled with all of them. In doing so, he has earned a reputation as a creature even rarer than the endangered Amazonian manatee: an authoritative, stubbornly independent journalist who doesn't shrink from confronting some of Brazil's most potent interests.

"People know when they start a fight with me I will never submit to their power," Pinto says in his soft, measured voice. "Only the people saying the truth will impress me."

Neither his isolation nor his legal quandaries have stopped Pinto from writing and publishing Jornal Pessoal (Personal Newspaper), a 12-page, bimonthly, 2,000-circulation newsletter. Pinto has been producing the journal out of his modest home here for 20 years, after he quit working for O Liberal in 1987. The journal relies entirely on sales to cover its costs. It carries no ads because Pinto, the author of several books, believes that accepting even one centavo for commercial promotions would taint his publication's integrity.

Separated from his wife, with three of his four children grown and living elsewhere, Pinto displays a monastic devotion to his solitary labors. Inspired by the legendary U.S. investigative journalist I.F. Stone (who also self-published a paper), Pinto pores over obscure government reports, aluminum company balance sheets and other minutiae in search of a telling detail, a pregnant fact. He publishes every letter he receives, even if they're 10-page, threat-filled rants.

Among Pinto's surfeit of adversaries, there's one group he must be especially wary of these days: local judges, who he believes would toss him in jail if he failed to show up for any of the court appearances occasioned by his numerous legal run-ins. About 2 1/2 years ago, Pinto had to pass up a trip to New York to receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, because he feared that if he left Belem even for a single day his enemies immediately would announce a new court date and charge him with skipping town.

In Brazil, as in other parts of Latin America, journalists are much more vulnerable to lawsuits than their U.S. counterparts. Even if every word they write is true, they can face civil and even criminal charges if someone claims that a story damaged their reputation, wounded their finances or offended them in some other, sometimes vaguely defined way. In addition, the country still operates under the censorious 1967 Press Law passed by the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 (26 of the lawsuits against Pinto were filed under this law).

Although Pinto was convicted in four of the lawsuits against him (three of which subsequently expired because appeals courts failed to meet deadlines), he stresses that "I was never proved wrong in any of the essential facts." He still could face jail time under the one remaining criminal lawsuit in which he was convicted, for referring to a local businessman (now deceased) as a land-grabber.

Pinto regards the lawsuits, which he says consume 80% of his time, as a diversionary tactic to dissuade him from practicing journalism.

"I will not accept lies, and this is why there has been an effort to silence me using the judiciary system, because killing me would have to have too high of an impact," he says. He seems unswayed by these risks but admits to more mundane concerns. "I have had a lot of problems when I forgot to use sun block."

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