How Dom Phillips Effortlessly Taught Me to Be a Better Journalist

More than a few times over the past couple weeks, I sat down to write a few words about Dom Phillips, the British journalist and Intercept contributor who, along with Bruno Pereira, an expert on Indigenous people, went missing on June 5 in the Javari Valley of the Amazon. My attempts felt incomplete. I decided it would be better to wait for the two of them to return to tell Dom just how important his guidance was to me at a critical juncture in my career. Tragically, the days have continued to tick by, and Dom has yet to come home.

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

The investigation took place just three months after I’d been hired to work for The Intercept, and it was the first time I’d traveled to one of Brazil’s Northern states. It’s not hard to imagine just how nervous I was at the time. Though I had already achieved a measure of success in Teresina, the city I hail from, I felt inadequate to the task of writing a major story of international interest on a region that was utterly unknown to me. The lack of confidence persisted despite the presence of a journalist with as much experience as Dom, whose expertise was principally on matters relating to the Amazon. Feeling deeply uncertain of my role, I imagined that I would be no more than his assistant. It would be up to Dom to prove me wrong.

In 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 have to say it explicitly in that accented Portuguese of his. He just listened attentively to what I had already turned up, laughed with me at a video in which the Amazonas governor used Giuliani as a poster boy for his reelection 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 the competition between the organized crime groups that battled for control in the region. Then we hit the streets.

Still feeling like an intern, I observed as Dom conversed with his sources. There was no rush to finish interviews. I wondered sometimes if his questions on the minutiae of the day’s subjects were even necessary. “These will take a long time to transcribe,” I thought to myself during our first interview. I glanced at his notebook and saw that he was writing down the exact minute at which a source was saying something important, summing up the idea with a short phrase. He could use the time stamps to jump to the most important details captured on tape. In a simple and spontaneous way, Dom was offering me a lesson, but without declaring that he was teaching me.

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

When I learned of his disappearance, one of the first things that popped into my head was a night the two of us had to flee from gunfire. Dom had a source in Manaus who was supposed to let us know of any killings in the area. Since we were writing about public security in Amazonas, it was important to include a description of such scenes. We were eating when the source called; we dropped everything and raced to the location.

It didn’t feel risky to be at the crime scene at the time, swarming as it was with police and journalists. Yet we hadn’t considered the possibility that the gang members who had committed the murder might return. And they did — with guns ablaze. 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 of shots. The scene quickly became a panicked melee, and we hurried off the street to safety.

Dom is fearless in his love of journalism. When we spoke of labor rights between press conferences with local officials, I got the impression that reporting, for him, is more of a vocation than a job. He takes great pleasure in what he does.

Dom is fearless in his love of journalism. I got the impression that reporting, for him, is more of a vocation than a job.

When he disappeared, Dom was reporting for a forthcoming book called “How to Save the Amazon.” Since January 2021, he had dedicated himself primarily to the book and had, along with his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, made financial sacrifices to do so. She gave up her job at a nonprofit working with female refugees in Rio de Janeiro to live in Salvador in order 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 not clear when that will happen.

Dom’s family is not alone in their struggles. Bruno, Dom’s traveling companion, had also fallen on difficult times. He had been on leave from his position at the National Indian Foundation since 2019, after being dismissed by right-wing government officials. The expert had previously been the general coordinator for the division for isolated and recently contacted Indigenous people, but he was replaced by an evangelical missionary with little experience in the area.

A fundraising campaign was created to help both of their families.

Since Dom and Bruno’s disappearances, we have been demanding that the Bolsonaro government and armed forces speed up their search efforts, but they’ve been doing little so far, and we don’t expect them to do much more. The army started its search 48 hours after the disappearances were reported, and without using planes, which are essential for searching the forests for missing people.

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 ruling was in response to a request from Unijava, the Union of Indigenous Organizations of the Javari Valley, which had committed to finding Dom and Bruno in the hours after their disappearance. Indigenous people have been on the front lines of the search, using their own vehicles and equipment, and continue to be essential to the efforts.

The neglect from the federal government has increased the suffering of Dom and Bruno’s families, friends, and colleagues. Recent cases show that speaking out on agrarian conflict in Indigenous lands has become more and more treacherous. According to monitoring from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, Abraji, there have been six registered attacks against journalists in Brazil’s Northern Region so far this year. In 2021, there were 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 during far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s government on a recent Twitter thread. The very size of the thread is terrifying. Without federal agencies taking the search for Dom and Bruno seriously, the chances that they are found safe diminish every day — just as my hope does that I will one day be able to tell Dom everything I’ve written about him here.

The post How Dom Phillips Effortlessly Taught Me to Be a Better Journalist appeared first on The Intercept.