SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The June assassinations of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Araújo Pereira in the Brazilian Amazon’s Javari Valley is a gruesome chapter unraveling the silencing of voices defending environmental and Indigenous peoples’ rights. In many cases, however, those who suffer the most from such physical and psychological harassment are local Indigenous communities themselves.
During the search for the whereabouts of Phillips and Araújo, Indigenous people helped the most to locate their bodies, as they know the terrain and understand the climate. Still, the work of these real-life trackers organized by the Union of the Indigenous Peoples from the Javari Valley was barely discussed in the mainstream media, as seen by press interviews that lacked an Indigenous presence to answer the reporters.
In a certain way, aside from the physical and psychological harm that Indigenous peoples suffer, the neglect is also a way of censoring their voices. This is nothing new to them.
In May 2021, a Brazilian federal judge was forced to suspend a police probe into Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara, who criticized President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing a lack of evidence that Guajajara had committed a crime. The president has been victimizing the country on a large scale, and Indigenous people, although a minority, are receiving the brunt of it.
In many cases the Indigenous are treated as either children or “noble savages” by liberal celebrities and mainstream media, or they experience hatred from far-right politicians resulting in their voices being shut out of critical conversations.
Guajajara, head of Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), a local Indigenous grassroots movement, is known for being a critic of the government’s treatment of Indigenous and environmental issues. “The persecution by this government is unacceptable and absurd!” she tweeted. “They will not shut us up!”
Fui intimada pela PF, como representante da @apiboficial, para depor em um inquérito por conta da websérie Maracá. A perseguição desse governo é inaceitável e absurda! Eles não nos calarão!
— Sonia Guajajara 5088 (@GuajajaraSonia) April 30, 2021
What sparked the seemingly arbitrary prosecution is highlighted by the situation at FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency created in 1967 to defend the interests of Indigenous peoples, which has recently been taken over by Bolsonaro allies. According to an exposé by reporter Rubens Valente, FUNAI is now promoting a policy aligned with the Bolsonaro government. In a report the group compared Phillips and Pereira to the main characters of the 1994 comedy Dumb & Dumber.
This same institution was outraged by Guajajara’s documentary series, Maracá – Indigenous Emergency, which calls out the government’s COVID-19 measures for Indigenous peoples—measures that have been not only insufficient but also harmful.
Almir Suruí was also another Indigenous leader subpoenaed. Back in March 2021, Felipe Neto, a white Brazilian and the most popular YouTuber in Brazil, was summoned to testify after calling Bolsonaro “genocidal.”
Their words are backed by the decision of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal to judge Bolsonaro on the charges of crimes against humanity during the COVID-19 pandemic and also attacks against minorities and threatening Brazilian democracy. This institution may not pack a punch as hard as the International Criminal Court, but it can still affect public opinion.
While occurring last year, such cases still resonate and point to how freedom of speech is vital to the democratic fabric, especially for those with fewer resources. The denial of self-expression is a form of violence, and it is important for Indigenous peoples to have their own voices and not be muted by authoritarian figures or merely rely on advocates who may distort their arguments to align with their own agendas.
As the world is watching in Brazil, when authoritarian forces rise to power, one of the first casualties is freedom of speech—then comes the imposition of further physical and psychological aggressions. For those at the bottom of society, expressing oneself isn’t just a right but a necessity.
With the media evolution we’ve seen in the last decade, a political player no longer depends on mainstream media, which in turn is moved by economic interests and from time to time is aligned with governments and agents of the private sector.
By being able to freely convey their ordeal, Indigenous people are not only giving first-hand accounts but also trying to bring awareness to the public and mainstream outlets, thereby putting pressure on political leaders and private conglomerates.
Brazil is third in the world in COVID-19 infection cases and second in number of deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Brazilian media has been keeping its own track of the pandemic, since it can’t rely on the data provided by a government known for its science denial.
The South American country is home to 850,000 Indigenous people that are part of 300 communities. APIB, as with many other private or non-governmental institutions, has been keeping track of Indigenous-related cases on its own.
According to APIB, the novel virus has affected 162 communities, infected more than 71,000 Indigenous people, and killed at least 1300 individuals of said communities. In a country of 213 million inhabitants, Indigenous peoples represent 1.1 percent of the population, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
Along with being labeled a “genocidal” “science denier,” among many other descriptors, Bolsonaro is seen as a far-right extremist with inclinations toward censorship like what was imposed during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), an era that he recalls with enthusiasm and even affection, but which is remembered by many factions spanning the political spectrum as one of the darkest periods in Brazilian history.
The similarities between Guajajara, Suruí, and Neto lie in how the state apparatus is being put into action to curtail freedom of speech, a characteristic commonly seen in autocracies, which suggests a possibly troublesome path that Brazil may be heading down—either with or without Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s Indigenous peoples may have to more dark nights in the coming years, which makes it crucial that their freedom of speech is protected.
Gabriel Leão is a Brazilian journalist based in São Paulo whose work has been featured by Wired, Ozy Media, Al Jazeera, and Vice. He holds a master’s degree in communications and a post-graduate degree in foreign relations.