Commentary: So Tim's death will not have been in vain

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AUSTIN, Texas — By a sick coincidence, the Brazilian journalist Tim Lopes was assassinated precisely on the 26th anniversary of the car-bomb explosion that killed his North American colleague, reporter Don Bolles, on June 2, 1976 in Phoenix, Arizona.

The death of the reporter for the Arizona Republic brought immense repercussions in the United States, where reporters and editors did everything possible to achieve two immediate objectives.

First, they sent a clear message to the Arizona Mafia: to kill a journalist for doing his or her job will always result in enormous outrage, and an extraordinary national mobilization.

Second, they continued Bolles’ investigative reporting on the Arizona Mafia, showing that it is senseless to kill an investigative journalist, because many others will quickly appear to continue the work.

In this spirit, dozens of reporters went to Phoenix to complete the unfinished work of their assassinated colleague. After several months they produced a series of 23 articles that were published throughout the country, and that exposed the Mafia that Bolles was investigating. (Two people were convicted and sent to prison for the killing of Bolles.)

As a result of Don’s death and the mobilization that followed, the organization known as Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (IRE) became a national entity. Today IRE has 3,000 members and maintains a permanent educational program to help reporters learn investigative techniques — the type that Tim Lopes used during his career in newspapers and television, until his death in Rio de Janeiro.

The Bolles episode reveals something admirable about U.S. society: its capacity to unite during times of crisis, and to marshal the forces needed to overcome adversity. Such a climate leaves no room for dissenters. We saw this after the monumental tragedy of September 11. The entire country plunged into deep mourning, while at the same time it prepared for a retaliatory war and took defensive actions to prevent similar attacks. Only much later did political discussions begin over the failures of the U.S. intelligence community and security forces that might have prevented the tragedy.

By contrast, the most appalling reaction to the recent assassination of Tim Lopes was the critical, and even cynical tone of fellow journalists, who, either publicly or privately, committed the sin of blaming the victim for one of the most barbaric crimes known to have been committed against a reporter in the history of journalism. Tim was captured, tortured, and executed. Then, according to witness accounts, his body was cut into pieces and burned.

Instead of observing a period of mourning and support for Tim’s family — the respectful way to honor the memory of this courageous reporter who sacrificed his life at the hands of the cruelest type of bandits — several of Tim’s own colleagues criticized him, questioning his methods and professionalism.

Rather than speak out against Tim’s killers, and against the growing, omnipotent network of drug traffickers and organized crime — a cancer that is rotting away the fabric of Brazilian society like it has done in Colombia — the critics instead attack TV Globo and the methods its journalists use to investigate and reveal this scourge on Brazilian society.

Instead of recognizing that the attack on a journalist in the line of duty also represents an attack on the freedom of the press, and therefore warrants special attention, some journalists are challenging this concept, arguing for the need for a strange equanimity that Tim’s assassination should receive the same prominence (or lack of prominence) as do the deaths of so many other anonymous citizens — victims of the ruthless fury of bandits who govern the territory of so much of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities.

Tim Lopes was practicing investigative journalism, employing legitimate techniques that he had used successfully many times before. Once again he was trying to expose the reality that many in Rio and other cities simply do not want to see: the abuses of the feudal rulers who govern their enclaves in Brazil, with the help of strongly armed clandestine armies, and behind the protection of a human shield formed by the poor, honest residents of these communities. Tim was fulfilling his duties as a journalist, serving the society and democracy that our country is constructing.

It is clear that Tim should have worked with a stronger safety plan in place. And it is obvious that, following Tim’s death, journalists who report on Brazilian communities that are ruled by bandits will never conduct their work as they have done in the past. Journalism will permanently alter its practices, just as reporters at the Wall Street Journal and other news organizations have changed their tactics since the recent kidnapping and execution of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

While we cry over the death of our colleague Tim and show our support for his family, it is only natural to take precautions that would prevent this case from repeating itself. But it is also fundamental to do everything within our power so that Tim’s sacrifice will not have been in vain. For that, journalists must unite and seek the greatest possible repercussion for the case.

Such reprisals must make clear to the banditry that the execution of a journalist differs from those deaths that are committed against so many victims every day, and which always go unpunished. Unless we make this clear, we risk the possibility that Tim’s execution will unleash a wave of killing of journalists.

There is nothing improper about giving full attention possible to Tim’s case. What is wrong is that the same attention has not been paid to the violent deaths of so many other citizens who are believed to have been killed by Tim’s assassins. It is wrong that these deaths have only surfaced due to the investigation of Tim’s death.

In reality, Tim’s death will lead us to continue our work of exposing the unimaginable heights to which organized criminals have ascended and now rule over large parts of our country. Tim’s death will not have been in vain if, as a result, Brazilian society commits itself to root out the cancer of drug trafficking and organized crime from the fertile ground of our country, one that has long been weakened by the poor distribution of income, extreme poverty, and chronic egoism.

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