Dom Phillips, 1964-2022
‘The hardest-working freelance in Brazil’
TOM HENNIGAN, a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America, remembered London Freelance Branch member Dom Phillips at the July Branch meeting. Dom was murdered in July while researching a book in the Brazilian Amazon, alongside Bruno Pereira, a former official with the country's Indian Affairs department.
Dom was, Tom said, "the hardest-working freelance in Brazil." He started reporting from the country in 2008 and "made a huge success of it, at a time when many were coming down here to give it a go. It is very difficult, getting paid for foreign news. Many very good and eager young journalists come out of journalism school, go to Brazil, do very good work – and often leave after two or three years." There are fewer staff journalists than there were – "when I arrived," Tom recalled, "there was a community of journalists working for US big-city newspapers."
Dom Phillips worked for "many of the very best English-language papers" and for some leading Brazilian publications that quickly recognised that his was "a sophisticated gringo eye" on their country.
Before arriving in Brazil, Dom's career in the UK was as a music journalist, on Mixmag – "during the 1990s when that scene was at its height".
When he arrived he didn't know Portuguese - and he was "open about the fact that he was at first clueless" about Brazil. It became clear that he learned very quickly and would go anywhere and meet anyone to find out. Tom "gave him his first regular string for the Times".
"Some think of Dom as an activist," Tom noted: "he wasn't. He was a journalist – starting from when he founded music fanzines in Liverpool in the 80s." Dom moved from Sao Paolo to Rio de Janeiro because the World Cup was coming and there would be more stories. Then he started focusing on the Amazon because he understood that, of all Brazilian stories, this was the one with the most global impact. "It's quite hard for other Brazil stories to get into foreign papers."
"Dom always approached his work as a journalist, not an activist. He wrote about illegal loggers and miners – and he had great sympathy for the people who are doing the wrong thing because they need to scrape a living. He never stopped calling out the entities that were driving the destruction of the rainforest."
Bruno Pereira, killed alongside Dom, was "a fearless official in Indian Affairs – and keen to explain to journalists such as Don the power structures behind the destruction of the rainforest. Their relationship was close because it was forged over week-long trips into the remotest corners of the rainforest."
The reason Dom was in the Amazon when he was murdered was because he was attempting to explain the crisis in the Amazon and how we can get out of it on a practical level.
Tim Dawson proposed a Branch policy motion that "pledges to support efforts to create a suitable memorial to Dom Phillips". He was aware that Dom's friends and family are trying to publish the book that he was working on. A crowdfunder has brought in significant sums for immediate needs. The motion was passed: when we have more details we'll come back.
Julio Etchart asked Tom what pressure there is on the Brazilian government to find the real culprits. Tom reported that there was an arrest on the previous Thursday (7 July) – of someone identified as possibly the criminal who ordered the murder, for whom the fishermen who earlier confessed to the crime had been working. "We have to be watchful," Tom said, "and aware that in Brazil these things unfortunately take time, sometimes years."
There is concern that under President Jair Bolsonaro the police appeared to be rushing to conclude that there was no wider conspiracy. Without a doubt they sought to close down such lines of investigation – and it was pushback by opposition politicians and the foreign press that made them reconsider.
Tom reported that Brazil's Vice-President Hamilton Mourão had suggested that Dom's murder was "collateral damage" in an attack on Bruno Pereira. Bruno was in 2019 fired from his position as head of the isolated Indigenous people’s division of the state Indian Affairs agency FUNAI (the Fundaçào Nacional do Índio). He then went out as a campaigner to do the work that the government was not doing.
"We do know," Tom said, "that this was a return trip to the area. In 2019 another Indian Affairs official was murdered in the town that Dom flew into. Dom was looking into that murder. Since Dom was murdered we have been picking up that those people have political protection. Colleagues conclude that "Dom was lulled for his journalists work."
It is important, Tom said, that the UN Special Rapporteur and even the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights follow the investigations and apply pressure. The criminal networks involved in the region do, though, have political protection.
Julio asked about the election in Brazil in October. Tom reported that there are "two heads of momentum building in Brazil. One looks to be propelling Lula to election." Every poll for months has favoured Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Workers' Party candidate. The other momentum that Tom identified is that Bolsonaro is openly preparing for the equivalent of former US President's stunt on 6 January 2021 - "telling his supporters to arm themselves. It's going to be a very dangerous year in Brazil."
Tim Gopsill, in the Chair, said that "we're very conscious of the peril to you and your colleagues and we appreciate the work you're doing."
A member asked: what is the solution to the Amazon issue, and what could have happened if these murders hadn't taken place? Tom said that Dom's book will offer suggestions about what can be done to sustainably manage the region: "you can't just evacuate 20 million people from the rainforest." And "there is still far more of the rainforest standing than has been burned – but there's a risk of a tipping point" at which the remaining forest rapidly collapses. "Scientists say that some areas now emitting more carbon than they are taking up." That is deeply worrying.
The first step in a solution is for Brazil "simply to enforce its own laws. Unfortunately, under Bolsonaro there's not a chance of that happening."