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Facing attacks and threats from Brazil’s president, she kept reporting

Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello (image courtesy of Patricia Campos Mello)

Maringá, BRAZIL – The Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello does a lot of traveling for her job. This month, her work is bringing her to the United States to give the keynote address at the annual Justice for Women lecture at the University of Maine School of Law.

“Since my childhood, I am curious to meet new people and new worlds,” said Mello about her decision to become a journalist.  She spoke about her career in an interview with Youth Journalism International in advance of her Maine appearance.

Mello, who was targeted by former Brazilian president Jair Messias Bolsonaro and his followers, will speak about misogyny and online violence. The lecture is part of week of events covering the global conversations about justice for women and girls in developing countries.

“I am very honored with the invitation to join the event,” she said.

Patricia Campos Mello during a Zoom interview with Youth Journalism International. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

In 2018 when Bolsonaro was running for president, Mello observed that the same manipulation of public opinion in the United States and Indian elections was also happening in Brazil.

As a way to combat the spreading of fake news, she decided to write about it. This brought a lot of controversies among politicians.

“The former president Bolsonaro took legal action against me, requiring breaking with the confidentiality of the sources, which is unconstitutional,” Mello said. “It was very scary.”

After she began reporting on him in 2018, Bolsonaro also publicly attacked Patricia in a press conference. He insulted Mello and made a sexual insinuation. He referred to the sexist court testimony given by Hans River – a former digital marketing employee who worked for Bolsonaro – during an investigation about fake news.

 Without any proof, Rivers referred in court to “A certain type of matter in exchange for sex.”

Bolsonaro claimed that Mello did it all to get a story.

“She wanted to scoop the scoop at any price against me,” Bolsonaro said.

Mello didn’t expect this from the next president of her country.

“This shocked me a lot!  It’s absurd for someone to spread lies and attacks just because the writer is a woman. It was clear that he tried silencing journalists, especially women during his mandate,” Mello said in frustration.

After Mello wrote these articles about the use of fake news during presidential elections, followers of the former president also attacked her.

“His supporters usually called me saying they would punch my face, that they knew where I lived and where my son studied,” said Mello. “During this time, I spent more time at home. We were very cautious with my son, and I was even escorted. This was a terrible period.”

Despite that, the Brazilian journalist didn’t shut up. Instead, she spoke up about it and encouraged other women to do the same.

Mello filed a legal suit against Bolsonaro and another against his son Eduardo Bolsonaro, who also verbally attacked her, and another against River. She said she would donate half her winnings to the Brazilian women’s rights defense association.

“The results will be important to show that these offensives against journalists are nonacceptable,” Patricia said.

The legal process against the former president and the others is slowly advancing, but there is no provision when the courts will release the results.

“When the president uses misogyny to attack women, he is giving a dangerous signal to other men, especially politicians in the country, naturalizing this type of behavior against the female community,” Mello said.

Mello, 47, is a graduate of the University of Sao Paulo, the top institute in Brazil, and earned her master’s degree from New York University.

She said her biggest inspiration to be a journalist was her father, a photojournalist who covered many conflicts and wars.

“More than journalists, we should respect people’s privacies,” Mello remembered her father telling her. “What we write about them could somehow affect and change their lives.”

Her first job as a journalist was at Jornal da Tarde, where she had an internship. She also wrote for Valor Economico, Gazeta Mercantil, Estadão, and is now currently working at Folha de S.Paulo.

Her skills allowed her to work for fivce years as an international correspondent in the U.S. for the Brazilian newspaper, Estadão.

“It was very exciting! There I covered the Obama elections, the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, the Syrian war, and the ebola virus disease epidemic in Africa,” Mello said.

Patricia also worked for a summer at The Wall Street Journal in the Latin America division with many other Latinx.

“It was a great learning experience,” she said.

Although the covid-19 pandemic shut down airports for two years, Mello plans to cover international news again.

“As things are getting back to normal after the pandemic, I’m going back to the road,” she said. “On the last trip, I covered [Brazilian President Luiz] Lula’s visit to the U.S., and I’ll go to Ukraine in May to recall people’s attention to what is happening there, as nobody is talking about it anymore.”

Despite the challenges, being a reporter also brings remarkable experiences, according to Mello.

“One of the biggest difficulties I faced was to get into inaccessible places, such as Sierra Leona, Africa, to report about the Ebola crisis and to approach sensitive topics, like about the refugees,” she said.

She called a 2018 collaboration at Folha de S.Paulo called “Mundo de Muros” – which translates to World of Walls –  “the most exciting project” she’d ever been part of.

“It approached the many kinds of walls that marginalized people, especially refugees, worldwide,” she said.

In this project, Mello reported about the vulnerable community “Vila Esperança” in São Paulo, where the impoverished people don’t have access to many basic resources. Despite their need for help, the government built a wall around the roadway to hide this slum, with the stated goal of protecting middle-class drivers from thieves.

“For me, it was very touching to portray people that become invisible to society,” said Mello.

In times when information is easier and faster to access, journalism is facing another big challenge, Mello said: misinformation, and the quick spread of fake news.

“In the middle of a misinformed environment, the journalist’s role is even more vital, since they’re responsible for checking the veracity of information,” said Mello

That’s why she recommends that good journalists should be open to truly listen – more than speaking about themselves.

“And always carefully check the pieces of information, to avoid publishing something unfair or inaccurate,” advised Mello.

Mello’s Justice for Women lecture, the highlight of a week of panels and other events, will be Wednesday, April 26 at 7 p.m. inside Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland. For information about how to attend the free series, click here.

Nicole Luna is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

Read YJI’s coverage of the speech:

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