‘Outrage and heartbreak’ after murder of journalist, Indigenous activist in the Amazon

The desperate search for an Indigenous rights advocate and renowned journalist in a remote area of the Amazon in Brazil has apparently come to a grim conclusion. Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips disappeared 10 days ago, and now there are murder suspects in custody. Stephanie Sy reports, and speaks to journalist Andrew Downie to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The desperate search for an indigenous rights advocate and renowned journalist in a remote area of the Amazon in Brazil has apparently come to a grim conclusion.

    Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, who is a Briton, disappeared 10 days ago. Now there are murder suspects in custody, and there are still more questions than answers.

    Stephanie Sy reports.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    After a 10 day search that many criticized for being too little too late, there's little question that British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were murdered.

    Authorities say a suspect confessed and led police to the crime scene.

  • Eduardo Fontes, Amazon Regional Police Chief (through translator):

    Excavations have been carried out at the site. We move on to a new stage, identifying these human remains.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Bruno Pereira had worked for the government as an indigenous affairs representative, before turning to advocacy for those vulnerable groups, work that led to death threats.

    Dom Phillips was an award winning freelance journalist and 10-year resident of Brazil who had, of late focused, his reporting on those same communities. They were traveling together in the Javari Valley, an immense swathe of indigenous territory lying at the border with Colombia and Peru. It's a hotbed for criminal activity and violence.

    They were doing interviews with patrol teams who are supposed to crack down on illegal fishing and hunting, reporting that David Biller, a friend and colleague of Dom Phillips, says may have put a target on his back.

  • David Biller, Associated Press News Director, Brazil:

    This obviously earned him some enemies. And the main line of investigation right now for the police is that their killings was connected to this illegal fishing network.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Indigenous rights groups who had been holding protests since the pair's disappearance expressed outrage and heartbreak.

  • Vanderlecia Ortega Dos Santos, Witoto Tribe Nurse (through translator):

    It weighs heavy on our hearts and our people, because the one who put his life at the disposal and in defense of these people's lives and our territories is gone.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, had already been under fire for policies critics say favor opening more of the Amazon to read source extraction, at the expense of indigenous and environmental concerns.

    His reaction to the men's plight showed indifference.

  • Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian President (through translator):

    Both of them decided to enter a region completely inhospitable and isolated without security. And the problem happened. That Englishman wasn't liked in the region. He should have focused on taking care of himself.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Under President Bolsonaro, deforestation and fires in the Amazon have reached their highest levels. Dom Phillips had challenged the president during a press conference in 2019 that aired on Brazilian television.

    Dom Phillips, British Journalist and Indigenous Expert (through translator): The new deforestation data is showing a scary increase. How does the president want to show to the world that the government is really concerned about the preservation of the Amazon?

  • Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    You first have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil's, not yours. No country in the world has the morality to speak about the Amazon.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But Brazil's rain forests does matter to the globe. And that is what Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were highlighting in their journalism, cut short by murder.

    For more on all of this, we're joined by Andrew Downie, a journalist and author who has focused on Latin America for much of his career and who knew Dom Phillips well.

    Andrew, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour." And my deep sympathies to you on this day, learning this tragic news.

    What was your reaction to hearing about Dom's fate?

  • Andrew Downie, Journalist:

    Well, to be perfectly honest, it's something that we have been expecting for a few days. There was no reason for him to go missing in this area. He was with indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who knew the area very well.

    And friends of them who were around at the time, they said, when we didn't hear back from them immediately, we knew there was something wrong, because there was one stretch of river that they had to come up. And the fact that they didn't arrive, almost immediately, we knew there was something amiss.

    So it's something we have been — we have been, sadly, expecting.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I'm sure it is still a very sad day for you and for Dom's family.

    Can you talk more, Andrew, about Dom's mission as a journalist, why he was in Brazil? What was the nature of his reporting, specifically on this reporting trip?

  • Andrew Downie:

    Dom was in the Amazon to report a book.

    He had focused on nature, on the environment. He was something he loved. He was writing a book called "How to Save the Amazon." And he was going there to report about sustainable development and examine what kind of projects worked, in terms of making the people who live there healthier and happier and wealthier, and obviously preserving the forest, and what projects that have been going on were not working.

    So that was the main focus of the book.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And what about this very vast territory bordering Peru? It is not known to be a particularly safe place.

  • Andrew Downie:

    It's very densely forested.

    We have seen a lot of drug trafficking going on in the area increasingly in the last few years, supplies coming over from Peru, going backwards and forwards from Brazil. It's also an area, the Amazon in general, but this area in particular, there's a lot of pressure on these remote communities from illegal miners, illegal loggers, illegal hunters and fishers.

    And one of the — one of the main avenues for police to investigate is that the killers were illegal fishers. They had been collecting turtles and a fish called the pirarucu, which is one of the biggest freshwater fish in the world. It grows up to three meters' long.

    So they have had trouble before for the illegal fishing. And there's some speculation that Bruno knew about them. They saw Bruno and Dom during the reporting, taking pictures, and that's what led to the clashes and the tragedy on June the 5th.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's been suggested by critics of President Bolsonaro that he essentially blamed Dom and Bruno after their disappearance. In fact, he called what they did a — quote — "unrecommended adventure."

    What do you think of that characterization of Dom, as a journalist? Do you feel like he was somebody who took unadvised risks?

  • Andrew Downie:

    No, what Bolsonaro said is unconscionable, really.

    Blaming people who go to the Amazon to do environmental reporting, blaming a guy who's dedicated his life, Bruno Pereira, to helping indigenous people, blaming them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time is really — it's, frankly, unconscionable.

    He was not gung-ho. You know gung-ho reporters who get off on the adrenaline. And Dom wasn't really that keen that reporter. The thing that really stood out for me about Dom is that he was much more of a listener than he was a talker. He wasn't somebody who got off on that kind of adrenaline.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Talk about your thoughts on how the Brazilian government responded once they learned of Dom and Bruno's disappearance in early June.

  • Andrew Downie:

    Well, the Brazilian government was very slow to respond.

    One of the — one of the abiding memories of this will be the Brazilian military in the hours after they went missing saying, we're prepared and ready to start a search, but we're waiting from orders from above.

    So it took them a while before those orders came through. It took them a while before they got started. And that left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do you think their deaths will have a chilling effect on environmental and indigenous journalism in the Amazon?

  • Andrew Downie:

    If there's anything that you can see, listen, maybe there's some good come out of this — can come out of this, it might be the attention that's been focused on Dom and Bruno, on the plight of indigenous people, on the loggers, the illegal loggers, the illegal miners, the illegal hunters.

    Maybe this will focus attention and things will start to change.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Andrew Downie, a friend of Dom Phillips, who was killed in the Amazon, along with Bruno Pereira, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Andrew Downie:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment