The Brazil Model of Free Press and State Influence

NEW YORK | Oct. 21, 2013 — A quiet country to the international eye, Brazil has recently managed to make more noise than expected. It was the first time since the impeachment of President Fernando Collor, that Brazilians showed such a noticeable level of generalized fatigue towards their government’s shortcomings. Public demonstrations and protests started to take place all throughout June and still haven’t completely died out. The only other comparable set of manifestations took place in 1992, and prior to that, during the dictatorship.

When the dormant public arose, it was like a Rube Goldberg machine. Within a few weeks, over 100 Brazilian cities saw the masses taking to the streets to stir a series of debates over infrastructure, quality of life, taxes and corruption. Several Brazilian communities abroad followed suit. Parties were kept at bay. The protests didn’t revolve around religion or political affiliation.

In parallel to these developments, Brazil’s largest media monopolies started to get questioned. Any and all criticism towards any facet of Brazilian society became fair game, including the country‘s hosting of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games to take place in Rio. Questions of censorship and press freedom were thrown in the middle of the hurricane and continue to stir ongoing conversations.

During the panel on Brazil’s model of free press and state influence carried out at Columbia University earlier last week, journalists and critics got together to discuss some of the key issues surrounding the media’s response to these events. Cabot board member and award winner, Paulo Sotero, moderated the discussion.

Against common belief, Brazil has a partly free press according to Freedom House’s global study on media independence during 2012. The contradiction finds its roots in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. Brazil’s judiciary system still poses enough legal loops and gaps to allow for a certain level of censorship to take over through what Paulo Sotero calls “untraditional channels”, many of which refer to legal entanglements created by major public figures and celebrities over their image rights.

Artists and public advocates, who were once persecuted during the dictatorship, are now putting themselves in opposition to media laws that may threaten their private interests. The irony of the situation did not go unnoticed.

One of the issues mentioned was the matter of unauthorized biographies, which can still be legally published but are highly subjected to lawsuits. Deified celebrities like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque, who were once in the epicenter of the fight for freedom of speech and expression, now find themselves fiercely trying to protect the way in which people are going to remember them.

Marion Strecker, a columnist for Folha and founder of UOL pointed to a developing divorce between Brazilian mass media and the public. During this year’s protests, major national news organizations preferred to cover the eventual violence stemming from the demonstrations, rather than focusing on the reasons at the root of people’s demands and advocacy. To that buffer attempt, protestors responded with a shout against Globo and Record, two of the top national networks that dominate the country’s televised news.

Meanwhile in the press, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro prohibited source anonymity as an attempt to inhibit the violence, but according to many, police continued to fuel much of the chaos that ensued, arguably attacking journalists and unarmed civilians.

Strecker questioned the difference in the way that the media portrayed protestors in other countries, as opposed to the ones at home. Abroad, they were made into activists while in Brazil they were referred to as vandals.

“These words are not neutral,” said Strecker. The government has been portraying Brazil as a prosperous nation, where 30 million people have moved out of the poverty line. However, to Strecker the reality is that Brazil remains underdeveloped; a country where the bulk of the budget is rarely managed towards education, public health, transportation or other basic needs concerning urban logistics.

Brazil’s equivalent of public media, represented by TV Brasil and TV Cultura, does not produce investigative journalism. The alternative media in place at the moment is represented by a journalism collective called Mídia Ninja, comprised of a little over 20 correspondents and contributors, acting in six major Brazilian cities. The collective is financed by a group of cultural producers known as Fora do Eixo (Outside the Axis). Their latest coverage was about the police’s use of pepper spray on native Brazilian indians during a protest in the capital over the distribution of land for these communities.

Strecker pointed out that a recurring image in the protests were the attacks to banks and other financial institutions as a criticism to Brazil’s economic discrepancy across different classes. Strecker concluded that as long as the media chooses to focus their reporting on the collateral effects of the manifestations, such as the traffic jams or the logistical effects that it may have brought upon the cities involved, it will continue to foster distance and disengagement among its audience.

When talking about the extent of state interference in the media, Ascanio Seleme, the managing editor of O Globo, said that he didn’t experience censorship in his work. He also stated that the newspaper O Globo is not funded by publicity from government and that this only represents 3% of its revenue.

According to him, the current administration has never raised its voice against the media, unlike the government under the mandate of president Lula, who previously went to the extent of revoking a visa to a NY Times correspondent on claims of libel.

“There is a small Chavez inside every Brazilian politician,” said Paulo Sotero. “All it takes is one criticism for them to want to lay down the censorship”.

Carlos Lins da Silva, editor of the Brazilian edition of the Columbia Journalism Review said that there is a conflict of interests in the Brazilian Constitution that remains unresolved. While its provisions secure the right for freedom of expression, they also establish the right to preserve one’s reputation and honor in cases of alleged defamation, which has been too loosely defined to prevent judiciary abuse or confusion. Differently from the United States, most libel cases of a private nature that end up in court are an easy win for the suing party, resulting in a censorship that can sometimes even be retroactive.

It has become commonplace for journalists and bloggers to be subjected to exorbitant fines and legal compensations for publishing any kind of criticism directed at a person or entity. This legal leverage over the press is succeeding in discouraging critical coverage and plurality in the media. There is no specific legislation in place to address press misconduct, which ends up allowing court judges to interpret the civil code at their own discretion. In many local governments, this situation fosters an idea of impunity that makes journalists more vulnerable to physical aggression and even murder.

Alberto Dines, the executive editor of Jornal do Brasil and Observatorio de Imprensa, was asked to replace Carlos Tiburcio on the panel, an advisor for the Presidency of Brazil, who cancelled his attendance to the event. Dines, who is a long time media critic, found it ironic to be taking the place of a government official during the conference.

Dines remarked that at the time of Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822, there were only 5 newspapers being printed in the entire country; three of them in Rio and one in Bahia. São Paulo, which later became the largest city in the country, only managed to have its own publication 20 years later.

Dines said that Brazil’s model of press and state influence is characterized by a system of four C’s that still prevails to this day: control, censorship, concentration and corporatism.

“We have a problem of geographic distribution that renders the country a democracy only where the press is present,” said Dines. “The places where the press is inactive, which is basically to say, in most of the country, we end up having a partial democracy that might as well be deemed as inexistent.”

Dines shared his frustration over the country’s delay in implementing regulations that could work in favor of the press. He mentioned that even though Brazil’s Constitution is in its eighth version, the changes established still prove to have transitory effects.

“While in exile in Petropolis, the notorious Stefan Zweig, wrote a book entitled ‘Brazil, Land of the Future’…Shortly after, he committed suicide!” joked Dines. “I think the book should have been called ‘Brazil, Land of the Ephemeral; the country that needs to sit down and work harder’,” concluded Dines.

From this discussion, it is safe to gather that press freedom exists in an environment of ongoing social questioning. Even though most of the news organizations in Brazil do not depend on federal funding, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to restriction attempts on the part of the government. It is also important to keep in mind that poor management has played a huge part in the loss of credibility and eventual extinction of several media outlets in the country. Today, Brazil seems to enjoy a considerable level of freedom of expression but the extent of its reach across the country is still polemic.