Blame It On Aécio

A journalism student's video documentary took on the issue of governmental press manipulation in Brazil.

In 1985, press censorship was officially banned in Brazil, following the overthrow of a dictatorship that had for decades crippled journalistic freedom. Since then, Brazilian journalists have investigated government corruption and unearthed environmental and social stories with a zeal that made the nation’s watchdog press appear robust. In 2006, Marcelo Baêta, then a graduate student in journalism, changed that impression with his video, Liberdade, Essa Palavra (“Freedom, That Word”), which linked the firing of several reporters in Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s largest states, to stories they wrote that were critical of Aécio Neves, the state’s powerful and popular governor. Neves is a likely candidate for president in 2010, and so the issue of press manipulation continues to unfold in Brazil. Elizabeth Tuttle spoke with Baêta in July.

How did this project evolve for you?

While I was still a student, the journalism program coordinator sent around an e-mail that she had received anonymously, which listed cases in which the government was reportedly interfering in the press to block negative stories. This interference allegedly caused the dismissal of several journalists from the Globo Minas network, the biggest television network here; the Minas Network, a state network; and Itatiaia, the largest radio station. That’s when I began to research other alleged instances of this kind of suppression.

In 2004, there were two other cases. In one, a journalist from the television network Bandeirantes was announcing a Brazil-Argentina soccer game here in Belo Horizonte when he mentioned that the governor had reserved 10,000 tickets for personal guests, leaving only 42,000 to the general public. The journalist didn’t return after the commercial break, the program was suspended midway through the broadcast, and the journalist was fired a week later.

What is the significance of Minas Gerais to Neves?

Neves became governor of Minas Gerais, and was reelected in 2006 by an overwhelming majority. The principal political figures of Minas support him, and the local press absolves all of his faults. In other words, Minas is a farm with its gates closed; practically all are pro-Neves.

What gives this example such significance to the larger Brazilian audience?

In São Paulo and Rio, there is generally a greater sense of power among the press. They don’t rely as fully on the government for information, so they can investigate a topic without too much fear of repercussion. But in peripheral states like Minas Gerais, the press relies on the state as its chief source of news and advertising. Thus, the coverage is strongly distorted.

How did the documentary begin to receive mainstream attention?

I originally presented it to the faculty on June 28, 2006, as a final project. On August 13, the video was cited in an article about Neves published in Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. I posted it on YouTube and Google Video later that month. On September 2, the campaign to reelect Neves released a fourteen-minute video response and posted it on the Web site of his political party. Then on September 5, Folha de São Paulo published another piece, about my video and the governor’s response. So it had a big impact on the discussion leading up to the elections that October, though Neves still won in a landslide victory.

What was the substance of the government’s respond?

Those that viewed it thought it was ridiculous. It merely drew further attention to my documentary. Its chief argument came from the testimonies of two journalists that I had interviewed. One of them claimed in the government’s video that he believed that Neves had not asked for him to be fired. He instead attributed that decision to the editor of his newspaper.

I didn’t include this information in my documentary for two reasons: first, nobody in the government or on the editorial boards of the newspapers confirmed that the firings occurred this way. And as the journalist said himself, he was basing his assertion on a belief, without concrete facts. Second, I received information off the record that the government had indeed asked for him to be fired.

How would you evaluate the overall state of the press in Brazil?

Considering the fact that only twenty-five years ago, we were in a dictatorship, I think our growth has been quite prolific. TV Globo is a giant of communication in Brazil, but the debate about Globo in Brazil is very intense, very polemical and very much alive. In my opinion, it’s actually a good station.

With regards to press freedom, the lessons come from the United States and France, who consecrated the first generation of universal rights to ensure certain needs of citizens: the right to come and go, the right to property, liberty and expression. Just to maintain these rights requires constant vigilance and a disposition to reclaim them when somebody tries to take them away.

How does Brazil attempt to monitor press freedom?

Partially through watchdogs with worldwide circulation, like Reporters Without Borders and the Knight Center. Brazil also has their own versions of these, like the Press Observatory and the Web site Comunique-se. There is also Article 19, a domestic watchdog whose role is to safeguard against infringements upon the freedom of speech and press. This disposition obviously does not dominate Brazilian journalism while these firings and self-censorship acts are still taking place. That being said, a movement is rising to ensure our society’s right to receive unbiased information of public interest.

Brazilians have begun to use the Internet at a prolific rate. How did this affect the impact of your video?

The Internet was extremely important because it helped to spread my ideas to a wider audience of potential supporters. This is a medium that can avoid the government’s special interests and power. Nowadays, Brazil has more than forty million Internet users daily. The average Brazilian uses the Internet for more than two hours a day. A huge phenomenon of the Brazilian Internet is the success of Orkut, a social networking Web site similar to Facebook or MySpace.

You made your documentary in 2006. What is its relevance now?

First, Neves is one of the main presidential hopefuls for the 2010 elections. Second, the international repercussions of my video-documentary are still reverberating. This past May, it was heavily featured on the Current TV documentary “Gagged in Brazil,” which has since been viewed on YouTube 50,000 times. In June, the governor’s communications department posted yet another video response, this time to the Current TV video. After that, I posted my own response on my blog,

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Elizabeth Tuttle is an intern at CJR.