Journalistic Barriers Halt Major Investigation Work Around Sexual Harassment

Are we prepared and do we really want to independently report on this kind of allegations?

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

Last week, over 300 women came forward with allegations of sexual abuse and rape against the internationally renowned psychic John of God (João de Deus). The first victims were heard by a joint reporting effort from talk show "Conversa com Bial" and newspaper O Globo that featured testimonies from almost a dozen women.

After the scoop, all other Brazilian news outlets found and heard more victims, and other women started to show up in police precincts all over the country, snowballing into an avalanche of cases that included João de Deus' daughter, who also publicly accused him of having abused her for years.

It seems that this violent behavior has been going on and on with impunity, all the while the press, both in Brazil and abroad, produced commendatory pieces about a man said to have the power to heal. Everything, in this case, looks spectacular.

After accusations surfaced against spiritual leader Siri Prem Baba, a Dutch woman wrote about her story with João de Deus in private feminist groups. It took six months for her account to be taken seriously and published in the Brazilian press. This long period shows that such allegations are usually promptly discarded by the Brazilian media for journalistic, legal, and possibly moral reasons.

We need to discuss if the Brazilian newsrooms are prepared, interested and have at their disposal the tools to independently investigate this type of crime, with the due respect to the privacy of everyone involved. 

The topic of violence against women has occupied this space before. I come back to it because I'm under the impression that Folha does not appear to be aware, committed and mobilized to understand how necessary and relevant it is to investigate gender violence. They are delicate processes that disrupt both the structures of power, including those in the newsroom.

Folha was the first to report on doctor Roger Abdelmassih's crimes against his patients, in 2009. However, the story was hidden in one of the back pages of the metro section. Such caution and discretion reveal how sexual violence allegations face infinitely greater selective barriers than, for example, stories about corruption.

We publish award-winning long-form pieces about plea deals, many of which are based on inferences and the reproduction of third-party conversations. But in sexual violence cases, the victim's account is treated with utter mistrust, requiring concrete evidence, as if most sex crimes could be (and had to be) proven by medical exams and scientific expertise. Reality shows us that often it is not necessary.

Of course, I will always defend the full right of the accused to defend themselves, as well as the technical accuracy in the reporting. I expressed to the newsroom that John of God must have the space to explain and defend himself, as well as to remember that the generous work he has done to thousands of people should not be ignored.

The newspaper needs to invest in institutional standards to accommodate and support reporters who investigate allegations of harassment. Some manuals guide how to approach, treat and protect victims of sexual abuse, preventing the press from being a further barrier in the social fabric against disclosure of such cases.

To disavow the victim or force a public exposure that can be vexing, make he or she go on record only to have some credibility are, for example, points condemned by international specialists in the investigation of reports on crimes sexual relations.

In the resolutions for 2019, Folha should create a task force to investigate abuses of power and sexual crimes. This task force would be trained to handle this kind of reporting with classes, panels and case studies.

How many serial sex offenders exist at the various levels of power, acting with impunity?

How many accounts have been informally heard, replicating abuse stories happening in the political, business and cultural elites, but that never reach the public or are criminally investigated? 

Those in power tend to be conservative, sexist, and conniving with abusive practices against women. It is an agenda seen as delicate, in which the press in general still opts for the mantle of silence in the name of privacy and the protection of honor. It ends up being, if not complicit, at least little vigilant and careless.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language​​