Ryerson Review of Journalism graphic

Sometime in August 1993, I found myself rattling in an ancient Cessna over one of the densest parts of the Brazilian Amazon dressed partly in my pyjamas and a soiled pair of khakis that I had discarded in a dark corner of my hotel room the night before.

I barely had enough time to dress after the 5 a.m. call from the pilot, who identified himself only as Captain Marvel. After nearly two weeks of bureaucratic wrangling, Captain Marvel finally received clearance from the Brazilian Air Force to take a group of local reporters and two foreign journalists (myself and a colleague from the Los Angeles Times to the site of what Brazilian authorities were calling the largest massacre of native people in modern times.

A few weeks earlier, the Brazilian press had reported that 73 Yanomami Indians had been killed by gold prospectors in the remote Amazon state of Roraima, near the Venezuelan border. But the Brazilian Ministry of Justice and the military had temporarily closed off the area, so many of my colleagues in the foreign press corps languished in the Amazon city of Boa Vista, about 320 km from the actual site, waiting impatientlv for Brazilian government clearance.

For many, the clearance never came because they were reluctant to wait more than a few days. However, that didn’t stop colleagues from such well-respected news organizations as The Miami Herald, Reuters and The New York Times from pounding out graphic stories of murder and devastation that hit front pages around the world. For example, the Brazil correspondent for The New York Times spent a total of 12 hours in Boa Vista, a seven-hour flight from his base in Rio de Janeiro, before returning to his bureau with the story of the massacre.

What followed was an Amazon version of “telephone” played out on a global media scale. Rumours and assumptions replaced facts and credible sources did not exist. “Did the massacre really take place?” became the central question of this story, which proved to be one of the most challenging exercises that I’ve experienced in foreign reporting. Unfortunately, the manner in which many in the foreign press covered the Yanomami massacre is indicative of what usually passes for mainstream reportage on contemporary Third World issues.

Those of us who hung out in the Amazon and had the resources and the time to report the story properly by flying as close as possible to the massacre site were surprised by the course of events. When our small planeload arrived at Homoxi, a Yanomami village, we found no evidence of a murder. A few of us even ventured into, what was for us, the uncharted reaches of the forest, only to spend a day lost in thick foliage and swarms of killer mosquitoes before the Brazilian military was forced to send a rescue team to find us.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were severely handicapped in our ability to report the truth. Not only were we restricted by difficult geographical conditions, all of our facts were filtered through opposing political points of view about the Yanomami Indians themselves.

Further hampering our ability to report the story was the fact that nobody in the local or foreign press corps could speak Yanomami. The only source was a Yanomami Indian named Antonio, who had heard about the massacre from a member of his tribe. Antonio did not speak Portuguese, yet an interpreter hired by the Brazilian Ministry of Native Affairs somehow ascertained that Antonio saw 73 dead Yanomami. Upon further investigation, Antonio’s story appeared suspect. Anthropologists who have studied the Yanomami contend that the Indians never openly discuss their dead with outsiders, nor do they count beyond the number two. Yanomamis count “one, two and many.”

Despite the lack of evidence, the federal Indian affairs agency, known by its Portuguese acronym FUNAI, was quick to condemn the slaughter and did a good job convincing the foreign press that 73 people had indeed been butchered by a group of wild-cat gold miners somewhere in the Amazon rainforest.

But like so many other so-called sources in this story, FUNAI had its own agenda. FUNAI, which lobbies the Brazilian president on behalf of the country’s native people, was using the foreign press to create international outrage that it hoped would pressure the Brazilian government to officially demarcate nearby lands for the exclusive use of two other native groups.

The region’s gold prospectors also had reason to contradict reports of the massacre. Most resented the Yanomami because their land in northern Brazil, which is technically off-limits to outsiders, rests on some of the country’s best mineral reserves. The prospectors, many of them impoverished migrants from other parts of Brazil, were angry that in 1992, the Brazilian government had given 9,000 Yanomami Indians a tract of land the size of Portugal. As far as they were concerned, the Indians were already getting too many special privileges.

A month after the original reports of the massacre, authorities did indeed find evidence of mass killings. They discovered the remains of 16 Yanomami Indians-in Venezuela.

I often think back on the difficulties of reporting the Yanomami massacre when I read foreign dispatches, especially from Third World countries. I wonder what kind of an effort the reporter actually made to get the most objective information. Anyone who has been to a developing country knows that reporting is often an all-consuming challenge. How can you worry about the most basic tenets of journalism when you’re too busy searching the Amazon for a phone that works? How do you go about finding the best sources in a place like Angola when you can’t even find a taxi to take you from the airport to your hotel?

With so many difficulties facing reporters in the Third World, it’s not surprising to see many relying on assumptions rather than reporting. In the Yanomami story, I watched my colleagues report unsubstantiated rumours as truth because they were simply too lazy or too inexperienced to check their facts.

Closer to home, the coverage of the Lamont/Spencer case in Brazil by most of my colleagues in the Canadian press over the last six years was largely based on a similar kind of assumption- and rumour-based journalism. Many Canadian reporters, who were perhaps overwhelmed by the complications of reporting from Brazil, relied heavily on stereotypes of the country as a corrupt, banana republic that had victimized Christine Lamont and David Spencer, two “innocent” Canadians who had somehow (if you believed the Canadian press) got unwittingly involved in Brazil’s most sensational kidnapping.

In December 1989, Lamont and Spencer were arrested along with eight Latin American terrorists for the kidnapping of Abitio dos Santos Diniz, an executive with the Pao de Acucar supermarket chain. Diniz was held for six days in in underground cell in the house that Lamont and Spencer were renting in São Paulo. The kidnappers had demanded $30 million (U.S.) in ransom.

Although there was much direct and circumstantial evidence linking the two Canadians to the crime, many in the Canadian press assumed they were innocent because Lamont and Spencer and their supporters in Canada said so. In the early years of the case, much of the reporting was based on an expensive lobby campaign largely financed by Lamont’s parents, to free the two Canadians. The campaign was so successful that many journalists overlooked the facts and apparently didn’t bother to read trial transcripts and Brazilian press reports (most of them available in English) that showed conflicting testimony on the part of Lamont and Spencer. After reading these reports, it becomes clear that Lamont and Spencer lied about what they were doing in South America and lied about their participation in the kidnapping. For instance, the transcripts show that they had rented two São Paulo houses (one of which was used in the kidnapping) using false passports and forged letters of reference. What’s more, they showed that Spencer had bought the building materials to construct the underground cell, which housed the victim. Spencer helped guard Diniz for several hours at a time.

In the early days of the case, some journalists, particularly at the CBC and Saturday Night, seemed to set out to prove the innocence of the pair. Instead of approaching their subjects with a heavy dose of skepticism, many journalists ended up defending the couple’s feeble rationalizations of why they had been caught by Brazilian police at the Sao Paulo house where the kidnap victim and a sizeable cache of arms had been hidden in the basement.

In a 1992 documentary for CBC’s the fifth estate, Victor Malarek appears to have gaps in his research. He questions Lamont about why she was travelling on a false passport in Brazil. She replies that she was engaged in unspecified human rights work. However, nobody who worked on that CBC documentary seems to have put in a call to Amnesty International in Ottawa. If they had, a spokesperson would have informed them that legitimate human rights workers never travel on false passports. The Lamonts enjoyed the fifth estate documentary so much that they used it as propaganda material in their vigils to free their daughter and her boyfriend.

Nearly four years after the incident, a bunker exploded in Nicaragua, revealing falsified documents that linked Lamont and Spencer to the kidnapping in Brazil. However, newspapers, such as The Vancouver Sun, based in Lamont’s hometown, still came to their defense.

For a time, the Lamonts dictated the press coverage. They told us that Lamont and Spencer were in Midnight Express-like jails and were pawns in a Brazilian political game. There was little truth to this information, but few journalists bothered to check. Many mechanically cited Amnesty International statistics about the murder of street children in Rio de Janeiro and rural union leaders in the country’s northeast. Never mind that none of these issues had anything to do with Lamont and Spencer or their case.

The press coverage became so absurd that some journalists even sought out the families of Spencer and Lamont for their expertise on Brazilian justice, economics and politics.

In the end, neither the lobbying on the part of the Lamonts and their supporters nor the biased press coverage in Canada did the couple any good. Ultimately, it backfired in Brazil, where the two lost appeal after appeal.

I naively hoped that my book on the case, published in April 1995, would generate a debate about how First World reporters cover Third World issues. Instead, it just generated bad feelings.

However, there were exceptions. In March 1995, both Saturday Night and CBC Radio’s Morningside publicly admitted that they had not reported all of the facts in the case.

Still, most journalists seemed too caught up in their own self-importance. In a 1995 Citytv Media Television segment about my book, Victor Malarek called me arrogant and complained that I did not have the good manners to call him before I criticized his two documentaries on the case. (For his part, Malarek insists that I should have contacted him as part of my research.) But the issue is not about personalities; it’s about journalism and I felt Malarek’s documentaries certainly spoke for themselves. Nobody called me when they criticized my book in newspapers across the country. And why should they?

Most Canadian journalists seemed too busy nursing their bruised egos to worry about what was truly important here – the story. In Lamont and Spencer’s most recent appeal, Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld the couple’s 28-year sentences. The journalists who had so diligently covered every rash and headache that Lamont developed in jail were uncharacteristically slow to report this bit of bad news, probably because it meant defeat in the campaign to free our compatriots.

Canadian journalists also missed what may be the best part of this story. In the summer of 1995, Lamont and Spencer and their eight fellow kidnappers admitted that the Diniz kidnapping had been part of an elaborate “operation” to raise money for the guerrilla cause in El Salvador, which Lamont and Spencer openly supported before leaving for South America in 1989. Lamont and Spencer may not have completely admitted to the crime of kidnapping, but for the first time in six years their story changed; essentially, they admitted they were not the innocent dupes the Canadian press liked made them out to be for so long. Too bad nobody in this country reported it.

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