The rise of Brazil's 'free journalists'

By disrupting common-sense narratives, Brazil’s alternative media is raising issues on behalf of a silent majority. But remaining independent is a challenge.

Helton Levy
3 August 2015

Protests in São Paulo, Brazil. June 17, 2013. Flickr/Rodrigo Vieira. Some rights reserved.Alternative media activism groups are on the rise in Brazil. On 24 May, the group Jornalistas Livres (Free Journalists) was set to officially launch, promising an agenda focused on human rights and a deep coverage of minorities, with an aim to fight the historical media monopoly in the country. Other media activism groups, and a variety of blogs, are increasingly seeking to provoke discussion about social change. Far from being media ghettos, they publish content on open platforms such as Medium and boost their popularity using social media. As alternative outlets grow in number, new questions arise regarding the extent of their political accountability and current interactions with power holders.

New media and social struggles


Protests in São Paulo, Brazil. June 17, 2013. Flickr/Rodrigo Vieira. Some rights reserved.Since the massive protests across Brazil in 2013, alternative producers are slowly managing to improve their reporting skills and professionalise their media practices. For instance Midia Ninja, one of the groups that two years ago rose to prominence for their chaotic iPhone live streaming is today hosted by an Oximity platform, featuring good quality images and articles. The website Postv.org is another source that constantly documents popular gatherings, social movements meetings, and many debates on current issues. Indigenous rights and affordable housing are particularly hot topics. It is by developing or improving their professional journalism skills, deepening their approach to social struggles and approaching them via a more robust and less disruptive dialogue that the independent media is expanding its audience.

In the race and ethnicity arena, for example, the website Geledés argues against the recurrent stereotypes that surround the image of black women in the media, mainly targeting those seen in soap operas, advertisements and cinema. The website offers an intersectional perspective that hosts other related topics, such as affirmative action, and a positive agenda to revive the self-esteem of Afro-Brazilians. When it comes to the coverage of poverty, Viva Favela and Observatório de Favelas are two popular alternative portals aimed at providing fairer reporting from Rio’s poorest communities. The idea is to achieve a much more nuanced view of what happens in those communities, escaping the conventional portrait of graphic violence as seen in both the national and international media.

A few months ago, Gemis, a blog written by academic researchers and militants, made important observations regarding the case of Verônica, a transvestite beaten by police officers when accused of robbing a man. Other independent blogs followed suit to denounce not only the disproportional violence employed by the police, but also the prejudice of newspaper headlines which named the victim as a 'he'. Fighting police brutality in the peripheral zones of Salvador is also the mission of the Mídia Periférica blog, which uses personal testimonials to show everyday life in Brazil's poor neighbourhoods, serving as a powerful record of the lack of basic rights that undermine citizenship.

The risks of cooptation


"Citizen journalist" in Brazil. Demotix/Marcio Isensee e Sa. All rights reserved.As online alternative media flourishes, two main risks may nevertheless weaken its role as a necessary interlocutor in society. The first risk lies in becoming part of the domains of big entertainment portals, such as Uol. This has been the reality for many successful blogs, which are now under paywalls or follow the same news values as mainstream players. At the same time, there is no doubt that major news outlets are constantly monitoring alternative blogs and citing 'citizen journalists', as they continue to fit independent journalists into their own narrative. Furthermore, news organizations such as The Guardian, aware of the potential, have started to train members of poor communities in Brazil in their own media practices, which, in spite of a bona fide purpose, may limit the ability of those citizens to innovate and create their own standards for journalism.

The second risk lies in partisan influences over alternative producers. On the one hand, the Brazilian government has recently established public policies to stimulate the work of independent media producers in favour of social reporting. The National Youth Secretary recently commissioned a trip for several producers to attend the Free Media and Youth Congress in Rio de Janeiro. Such sponsorship has also led to further criticism – in particular, there are questions about the involvement of the Workers Party (PT), the party of the President, with independent media groups, and the extent that the creation of new public policies could soften independent media in exchange for a positive partisan press.

Political polarisation and the media


President Dilma Rousseff speaks to the media. Demotix/Juliana Spinola. All rights reserved.It is true that with all the major news organizations extremely critical of her term, President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet and the PT can see alternative media and its growing popularity as a promising land for political marketing, as no other choice is left. However, the reality is that Rousseff’s last term continued to spend a big stake of the advertising budget on pieces for mainstream media players, such as Globo TV – much more than it invests in any other type of media. In the blogging arena, the so-called 'progressive bloggers' mostly receive government advertisements, which may compromise their ability to appear reliable to a broader, multi-partisan audience. On the other hand, opposition blogs have also displayed their connections with power. Newspaper Folha de S. Paulo recently reported on the ties between São Paulo State’s government, led by an opposition politician, with a publicist who is the author of well accessed anti-PT blogs.

Regardless of this fierce political polarisation, which inevitably affects the alternative media realm, or even leads to questions on what is really considered alternative, the role of independent authors, from new blogs to consolidated media activism, seem to a greater extent to be at the heart of the debate, contributing to a less homogenous media environment. Amidst a relatively conservative society, they are inevitably modernisers by reinserting poverty, privilege, and human rights into the conversation. In the same way, innovative takes on relatively recent topics, such as feminism, stem from those media producers.

Prospects for a counter-hegemonic media


Favela da Rocinha. Flickr/Thiago Trajano. Some rights reserved.This counter-hegemonic role is important as the mainstream media in Brazil, despite advances, is still unrepresentative. It is worth remembering that it was only a few years ago that TV soap operas started to stage their plots within slums, both a symbol of Brazil’s class inequality, and still a reality for many disadvantaged families. If public opinion has begun to include marginalised actors in their debates, initiatives such as Jornalistas Livres, and many others, can accelerate this process. By disrupting common-sense narratives, they will end up raising issues on behalf of a silent majority.

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