How Dom Phillips taught me to be a better journalist

Just one more several times over the past two weeks I have sat down to write a few words about Dom Phillips, the British journalist and Intercept contributor who, along with Bruno Pereira, an indigenous peoples expert, disappeared on June 5 in the Valley of Javari from the Amazon. My attempts seemed incomplete. I decided it was best to wait until they both came back to tell Dom how important his advice was to me at a critical time in my career. Tragically, the days continued to pass and Dom has yet to return home.

I met Dom in mid-2018, when we traveled together on a reporting trip to Manaus, a bustling and violent city of 2 million people in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Our goal was to find more information about a $1.6 million public safety contract between the Brazilian state government of Amazonas and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Our report was published in October in English and Portuguese.

The survey took place just three months after I was hired for The Intercept, and it was the first time I had traveled to one of Brazil’s northern states. It’s not hard to imagine how nervous I was back then. Although I had already had some success in Teresina, my home town, I felt unable to write a major story of international interest about a region that was totally unknown to me. The lack of trust persisted despite the presence of such a seasoned journalist as Dom, whose expertise focused primarily on Amazon issues. Feeling deeply uncertain of my role, I imagined that I would only be his assistant. It would be up to Dom to prove me wrong.

During our first conversation, I became aware of a generosity not often found in our profession. Dom made it clear that we would work together as equals. He didn’t need to say it explicitly in his accented Portuguese. He just listened carefully to what I had already seen, laughed with me at a video in which the governor of Amazonas used Giuliani as a poster boy for his re-election campaign, and wrote it all down in his ever-present notebook. In return, he told me what he knew about the security situation in Amazonas and explained to me the competition between organized criminal groups fighting for control of the region. Then we went down the street.

Still feeling like an intern, I observed Dom conversing with his sources. There was no rush to complete the interviews. I sometimes wondered if his questions about the details of the day’s topics were even necessary. “These are going to take a long time to transcribe,” I said to myself during our first interview. I glanced at his notebook and saw that he noted the exact minute a source said something important, summarizing the idea in a short sentence. He could use timestamps to directly access the most important details captured on tape. In a simple and spontaneous way, Dom offered me a lesson, but without declaring that he was teaching me.

Such was Dom’s behavior with his colleagues: willing to do the job without demanding credit, or even gratitude. He didn’t need to ask: I was very grateful.

When I learned of her disappearance, one of the first things that came to mind was a night when we had to flee from gunfire. Dom had a source in Manaus who was supposed to tell us about any murders in the area. Since we were writing about public safety in Amazonas, it was important to include a description of these scenes. We were eating when the source called; we dropped everything and ran to the place.

It didn’t seem risky to be at the crime scene at the time, teeming with police and reporters. Yet we hadn’t considered the possibility that the members of the gang who had committed the murder might return. And they did – with burning guns. Dom and I had just finished interviewing a victim’s family and were talking to people in the neighborhood when we heard the pop-pop-pop shots. The scene quickly became a panicked melee and we rushed off the street to safety.

Dom is fearless in her love of journalism. When we talked about labor rights between press conferences with local officials, I had the impression that reporting, for him, was more of a calling than a job. He takes great pleasure in what he does.

Dom is fearless in her love of journalism. I had the impression that reporting, for him, was more of a vocation than a profession.

When he disappeared, Dom was reporting for an upcoming book called “How to Save the Amazon.” Since January 2021, he had devoted himself mainly to books and had, with his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, made financial sacrifices to achieve this. She quit her job at a non-profit organization working with refugee women in Rio de Janeiro to live in Salvador to cut expenses. They were counting on the payment that would come with the delivery of Dom’s manuscript to the publisher. With Dom missing, it’s unclear when that will happen.

Dom’s family is not alone in its struggles. Bruno, Dom’s traveling companion, had also experienced difficult times. He had been on furlough from his post at the National Indian Foundation since 2019, after he was removed from his post by right-wing government officials. The expert was previously the general coordinator of the division for the isolated and recently contacted natives, but he was replaced by an evangelical missionary with little experience in the region.

A fundraiser was created to help their two families.

Since the disappearances of Dom and Bruno, we have demanded that the Bolsonaro government and the armed forces step up their search efforts, but they have done little so far, and we don’t expect them to do much more. The army began its search 48 hours after the reports of disappearances, and without using planes, essential to search for missing people in the forests.

Even a federal judge had to weigh in, just four days after the disappearance, to urge the federal government to redouble its search efforts. The decision followed a request from Unijava, the Union of Indigenous Organizations of the Javari Valley, which had pledged to find Dom and Bruno within hours of their disappearance. Indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of the search, using their own vehicles and equipment, and continue to be essential to the effort.

The federal government’s negligence has increased the suffering of Dom and Bruno’s families, friends and colleagues. Recent cases show that speaking out about agrarian disputes in indigenous lands has become increasingly treacherous. According to the monitoring of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, Abraji, six attacks have been recorded against journalists in the northern region of Brazil so far this year. In 2021, there have been at least 21 such cases.

Sinal de Fumaça, an organization that monitors socio-environmental crises in Brazil, condensed various episodes of violence in the fields and forests under the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in a recent Twitter thread. The sheer size of the wire is terrifying. Without federal agencies taking the search for Dom and Bruno seriously, the chances of them being found safely heel every day—just like my hope of one day being able to tell Dom everything I’ve written about him here.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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