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Leonardo Sakamoto vs Brazilian slavery

Death threats, a criminal defamation suit and malicious propaganda campaigns have not stopped Leonardo Sakamoto from campaigning for an end to slave labour in Brazil.

Marcel Crozet / ILO

A person who feels unjustly slandered has the right to turn to the law. However, there's a world of difference between this and actions that are clearly intended to discourage the journalist from reporting information that is political or that economic powers want kept secret.


Leonardo Sakamoto's blog, October 2015

Leonardo Sakamoto - the outspoken journalist, prolific blogger and anti-slave labour activist - knows plenty about threats to free expression in Brazil. In October 2015, he wrote:

"We're living during a period of worrying attacks on freedom of expression. These attacks are carried out by businesses, the government and politicians, all of whom resort to the courts in order to prevent us from publishing information that is in the public interest. Some want us to be censored. Others demand millions in damages.... This affects everyone: the right, the left, the centre, independent bloggers, the traditional media, me, you. A person who feels unjustly slandered has the right to turn to the law. However, there's a world of difference between this and actions that are clearly intended to discourage the journalist and his employer from reporting information that is political or that economic powers want kept secret."

As Sakamoto wrote this, he was facing a criminal defamation lawsuit brought against him by Pinuscam, a Brazilian timber company that he had - as a judge would later declare when he ruled in the journalist's favour - accurately identified as one of the targets of a federal government operation to rescue workers from slave labour conditions. Had Sakamoto been convicted, he would have faced fines and a possible jail sentence; the court case was just the latest in a series of attacks on the journalist's work.

Sakamoto, 39, has covered conflicts and human rights abuses in East Timor, Pakistan and Angola, but his driving passion is the eradication of slave labour in Brazil. He is the director and founder of Repórter Brasil, a workers' rights NGO comprised of independent journalists and social scientists who investigate and campaign against modern day slavery. His work saw him awarded the Combating Slave Labour Prize in 2006; he is currently his organization's representative on Brazil's National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour.

Despite its ranking as the ninth biggest economy in the world, Brazil has long had a problem with slave labour (slave labour can be defined as forced work in degrading conditions with little or no financial compensation). Approximately 50,000 Brazilians have been rescued from working in slave labour conditions since 1995, when the country officially recognized that it was a national problem. In 2003, Brazil began keeping an official "dirty list" of Brazilian businesses fined for using slave labour; these businesses stayed on the list for two years, during which time they were ineligible for bank loans and sales of their products were restricted. As Sakamoto said in 2016, "It was one of the strongest tools against slave labour in the country." However, in 2014, following a lawsuit filed by the Real Estate Developers' Association, the list was suspended. Repórter Brasil's response was to start compiling its own, unofficial list.

And it was needed. In 2014, a court found that the Brazilian company JBS - one of the biggest meat processing businesses in the world - had been feeding maggot-infested meat to its employees. Sakamoto's NGO covered the case extensively, reporting not just the lurid details of the contaminated meat, but also other, equally disturbing practices; these included the use of 20-hour working shifts and the exposure of employees to harmful ammonia gas. JBS was fined $R 2.3 million (approx. US$720,000) for abusing its workers.

Unsurprisingly, Sakamoto's work has made him enemies among some of the most powerful people in the country. Due to their wealth and influence, the backlash that he has suffered has gone way beyond the typical threats and harassment usually experienced by investigative reporters in Brazil. In 2016, a court order showed that JBS was behind a digital advertising campaign that aimed to ruin Sakamoto's reputation (by accusing him of - among other things - dishonesty and of being in the pay of former President Rousseff); also in 2016, the newspaper Edição do Brasil published a completely fabricated interview with Sakamoto in which it quoted him as saying, "the retired are useless to society." These lies went viral and resulted in the journalist receiving a deluge of death threats, something that can never be taken lightly in Brazil, where 39 journalists have been killed since 1992.

But rather than being cowed by the threats, the resilient, resourceful Sakamoto used them as material for his 2016 study of hatred and intolerance online, O que Aprendi Sendo Xingado na Internet ('What I Learned being Cussed Out on the Internet').

All the threats and harassment have not deterred Sakamoto in his work and he continues to blog daily about a wide array of human rights abuses faced by Brazilians. In October 2016, Reporters Without Borders announced that Sakamoto had been shortlisted for its 2016 Prize for Citizen Journalism.

Last Updated: 4 November 2016

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