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The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists Syria, France and Brazil as the countries in which the most reporters were murdered in 2015 . In the two first countries the figures are due to the civil war and the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The Brazilian case, however, is surprising. What has led to such a dangerous situation for journalists in a state that does not have censorship or other threats to the freedom of the press, such as an armed conflict?

Although 2015 was the worst year in over two decades, Brazil has long been numbered among the most lethal countries for reporters. Over 30 journalists have been murdered since 1992. More than half since 2011, and six in 2015 alone. Dozens of others have been assaulted or threatened.

This important news has not yet made the headlines or sparked mass outrage in Brazil. The reason is simple: almost all the killed journalists worked in small towns, for little radios stations, or edited their own sites and newsletters. They operated outside of the few major media outlets that dominate the Brazilian media and they reported mostly about the wrongdoings of local elites: a mayor involved in corruption, councilmen who sexually abused children or businessmen smuggling. These were the kind of stories reported on by Ítalo Barros and Roberto Leno, who were both shot dead in November in Maranhão, a poor state that is notorious for its corrupt and violent politics.

Foreign correspondents in Brazil are sensitive to the issue, and they have reported on the rising numbers of journalists murdered, giving plenty of detail about the victims. International NGOs have also been paying attention. Besides the work of the CPJ, Reporters Without Borders has also highlighted the threats to Brazil’s press and even sent an open letter to President Dilma Rousseff about the need to take action.

A Pattern of Impunity, Fear and Abuse

In the past decade, Brazil has succeeded in reducing poverty and 40 million people have risen to middle-class status. However, this has not had an impact on violence. Brazil is the country with the biggest number of homicides – more than 55,000 each year – and it also has a brutal and incompetent police force. Less than 10% of murder cases are solved and this pattern is a strong incentive for criminals.

The judicial system also poses a problem. Brazil has been a vibrant and dynamic democracy for 30 years and it has not had censorship laws since the dictatorship. However, many judges sentence journalists to heavy fines or even time in jail on the very controversial charges of defamation of politicians or corporate executives. For example, Lucio Flávio Pinto, a combative reporter who has won international prizes for his work in defense of the Amazon forest, has been sued more than 30 times and suffered several defeats.

It is because of these serious problems that Reporters Without Borders ranks Brazil as the 99th country in its World Press Freedom Index – well behind other Latin American states with similar socio-economic levels, such as Costa Rica (16th) or Uruguay (23th).

The situation has been getting worse because of rising political tensions in Brazil. Since 2013, mass demonstrations against the national and local governments have frequently resulted in violent clashes between activists and the police – and both groups have assaulted journalists. TV cameraman Santiago Andrade was killed by fireworks launched during a protest in Rio de Janeiro. Two protesters were charged with the crime. This was the first and only time in the 2010s that the press highlighted the killing of a journalist – even the police paid homage to him, giving his name to a TV studio at its headquarters. A curious decision considering the long history of police violence against the press.

Brazilian reporters are afraid in part because of economic instability. The recession has led many media outlets, especially in the written press, to make big layoffs. In the current political and economic environment , professionals are worried about their jobs and it is more difficult to act against collective threats to colleagues in small towns.

Every democracy needs journalists, who are able to challenge the powers-that-be and to take a stand in the defense of human rights. The difficulties faced by a developing country such as Brazil reinforces this necessity. The protection of its reporters is a basic step in ensuring the rule of law.

By Maurício Santoro, political scientist and assistant professor of International Relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro

Twitter: @msantoro1978