From international award winner to a man on the run: the courage of an investigative journalist

One month ago as Mauri König accepted the 2012 Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Press Freedom Award at a gala dinner in New York, he said he was thankful to be free and alive and expressed his concern for his co-recipients from China and Kyrgyzstan who remained in prison.

Today König is in hiding with his family because of death threats for his reports of corruption in his home town of Curitiba, Brazil.

His recent series about corruption in the police seems to have infuriated more than one public servant. The newspaper he works for, Gazeta de Pova, has received several anonymous calls threatening König and his family. In one of the calls an unidentified caller was very explicit, stating that “the police were out there to get him”. König has investigated several cases before, including one in which the police and the military have been involved. He has already been beaten to near death, allegedly by police officers.

Although this is not the first time he has received threats, König knows that no journalist should take them lightly, especially in Brazil. The CPJ says 10 journalists have been murdered in the country in 2011 and 2012 alone, at least six in direct relation to their work. König contacted the CPJ following the threats and they, together with other Latin American and Brazilian organisations, including the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) and the Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo (ABRAJI), are helping him and his family.

This dramatic story of a journalist and his family on the run is a strong contrast to the positive developments we have been observing in the recent past in Brazil. These include the promotion and effective implementation of pro-transparency reforms, such as the access to information bill and the clean record bill (Ficha Limpa),which stops people with criminal records from standing for election. For once impunity has been taken seriously, and the justice system has tried and punished powerful business people and politicians in the so called trial of the century, the “Mensalao”.

When König accepted his award in November he spoke of the need for Brazil’s government to make the protection of journalists a priority. He reminded his audience of how Brazil had initially tried to block a resolution in the United Nation calling for greater protection.  He said:

We now hope that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who in times of political activism was imprisoned and tortured for fighting for democracy and the right to free speech, is committed to the adoption of this plan. It is not to defend ourselves, as some might think, but rather the defence of freedom of expression as one of the pillars of democracy. This award from CPJ helps call attention to a problem that many are reluctant to admit, in Brazil and in other countries.

Journalists play an important role in holding leaders to account and in uncovering wrongdoing in their communities. And they are not alone. Individuals are increasingly more aware that they need to play a part in the solution of corruption problems. However, they need to feel safe, they need to be able to “blow the whistle” without fear of retaliation. Citizens can make a difference but need an enabling environment that the authorities can and should provide. If Brazil continues down the path of promoting laws and structural reforms, together with a strong stance against impunity, greater protection for journalists and whistle-blowers can’t be postponed.

In 2012 König has to spend the end of year celebrations in hiding. The Brazilian authorities have to now take a stand on this and come to his help. If those who dare to speak out against corruption are not protected, everyone suffers because fewer will have the courage that Mauri König has shown in his professional life and more corruption will go undetected.

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