Portland, Maine, U.S.A. – Journalists, especially women journalists, are often the targets of personal attacks by people retaliating against news stories, according to Brazilian reporter Patrícia Campos Mello.
Campos Mello’s April 26 lecture, “Sexism, Lies, and the Fight for Truth: A Reporter’s Story” at the University of Maine School of Law was a highlight of the annual “Justice for Women” weeklong series of events.
Campos Mello is a reporter and columnist for Folha de São Paulo, the largest newspaper in Brazil. She has covered international relations, economics and human rights, and has reported from over 50 countries.
After Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, targeted her with sexist personal attacks, she sued him – and won.
In sharing her experience as a reporter, Campos Mello said women journalists are personally targeted by authoritarians and powerful officials who want to shut down stories.
Campos Mello explained that there are many advantages to being a woman in journalism.
“Women journalists have more access,” she said, describing how women can create personal connections and more easily talk to people.
Despite this advantage, however, women journalists are also the targets of personal attacks and face more barriers in the industry, she said.
When Campos Mello started covering the Brazilian election, she was shocked to realize that being a woman in journalism made her a target.
In 2018, she exposed how Bolsonaro used WhatsApp to manipulate the election by using the social media messaging platform to circulate fake news about his opponents.
Campos Mello described how there were essentially sweatshops full of workers whose jobs were to send false WhatsApp messages to masses of people.
“As soon as I published, I became a target,” Campos Mello said.
Bolsonaro and his allies distributed fake photos of her meeting with candidates and called her a liar, she said, and reported fake claims that she seduced sources for information. They were willing to go to extremes to discredit her, she said, even distributing pornography with her face photoshopped onto it.
The false narratives and rumors have a very real impact, according to Campos Mello.
“People believe this stuff,” she said.
Campos Mello received rape threats and even threats against her child. She said a neighbor yelled insults and harassed her whenever she left her building.
As a mother, Campos Mello was concerned for her young son’s safety after she received a message threatening her to leave the country if she wanted to save her son.
She also worries about her son’s exposure to all the fake stories and sexually explicit material posted online about her.
“What if my son finds this? What am I going to say?” she asked the audience.
Personal and sexist attacks are part of a strategy to discredit and discourage women journalists, according to Campos Mello.
Instead of addressing the news stories, authoritarians choose to attack journalists themselves and try to destroy reputations using false and derogatory claims.
“For them to manipulate the stories, they need to discredit journalists,” Campos Mello said. She later added, “The worst thing for a journalist is to become the news.”
Even now, Campos Mello continues to be an advocate for free speech.
“None of this is normal,” Campos Mello said, referring to the personal attacks she faced. Democracies, like Brazil, have more freedom than some other authoritarian states, but even these nations are falling short of the free speech they idealize.
Journalist harassment and intimidation is an increasingly growing concern around the world.
In 2021, Campos Mello sued Bolsonaro and his son in civil court for moral damages. She won, though she said she expects the appeal process to continue.
The judge ruled against the president, which she viewed as a big step to show that democracy and justice still operate in Brazil.
In 2022, HBO released Endangered, a documentary featuring Campos Mello and three other journalists from Mexico, Brazil, and the United States.
Using their stories, the film documented how press freedom is rapidly deteriorating in democratic nations.
“We can’t let democracies neglect free speech,” Campos Mello warned. “Journalists are activists for the truth.”
Despite the harassment, Campos Mello continues to persevere. She mentioned that some of her stories impacted legislation and helped to control election manipulation.
“I am getting somewhere,” she said. “I am not going to stop now.”
Lyat Melese is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.