Illustration by Darrel Frost
In Conversation

The Fight for Good Information

A journalist and an anthropologist on how to understand Brazil

Last fall, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, was elected president of Brazil, it was an extraordinary comeback. Lula had previously served two terms, from 2003 to 2010. In 2011, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. In 2018, he was sent to prison on charges of money laundering and corruption, which he denied. The same year, Jair Bolsonaro waged a successful campaign for president, with a brand of politics that bore striking similarities to Donald Trump’s vitriol. The two men became friends—and, like Trump, Bolsonaro reserved a particular disdain for the press. “Right from the start of his first term, President Bolsonaro adopted an openly aggressive and belligerent posture towards journalists, and repeatedly demonstrated a complete refusal to accept the media’s role in a democratic society,” Emmanuel Colombié, the director of Reporters Without Borders’ Latin America bureau, has said. “He sees the media as just propaganda tools that are supposed to serve his government.” A second term loomed as a fearsome possibility.

At one point, Bolsonaro said he hoped that Lula would rot in prison. But in 2019 Lula was released, after serving a year and a half of a twelve-year sentence. Then Brazil’s Supreme Court threw out his convictions, ruling that the presiding judge had been biased—and paving the way for his campaign.

Lula claimed victory by a narrow margin. When he won, he vowed to be president of “all Brazilians”—the words echoed Joe Biden’s post-election promise of unity in the United States. But as in the United States, with its screeches of “election fraud,” Lula’s legitimacy was called into question. And just as a mob staged an insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, Brazilians stormed government buildings in their country’s capital, BrasĂ­lia, on January 8 of this year. It seemed a devastating reverberation of far-right extremism, if not a copycat event. “It was and it wasn’t,” Lilia Moritz Schwarcz—a Brazilian historian and anthropologist and the author of Brazilian Authoritarianism: Past and Present (2022)—said recently. “It was, because they really invaded very symbolic places: buildings, palaces. But it wasn’t—because, in the Brazilian case, the army, as we now know, may have taken part in it.”

Schwarcz was speaking with Marina Dias, a journalist who for many years wrote for Folha de S.Paulo and is now working for the Washington Post. Dias was in Brasília on January 8, where she found herself surrounded by bolsonaristas. She was yelled at, chased, pushed to the ground, and kicked repeatedly; the attackers pulled her hair, broke her glasses, and tried to grab her phone. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that she was one of at least forty journalists targeted during the riots. “I think it’s important that we talk about it,” Dias told me.

Bolsonaro has fled to Florida, where he is reportedly crashing with José Aldo, a Brazilian mixed-martial-arts fighter. Lula’s administration has since shown sympathy for the press. But Lula’s record with journalists is imperfect—he once threatened to revoke the visa of a New York Times correspondent—and he has inherited a media terrain in dire need of rehabilitation. To better understand these circumstances—and the broader context of authoritarianism in the country—I turned to Schwarcz and Dias. As it happened, Dias had just been at the National Museum of the Republic, covering an exhibition, “Future Brazil: Forms of Democracy,” that was curated by Schwarcz. Lula and his wife—Rosângela, known as Janja—were there, too. We now get to read a transcript of the conversation between Schwarcz and Dias, which has been edited for length and clarity. —Betsy Morais, managing editor

Marina Dias: It’s a pleasure to be here with you. I wanted to start by talking about a meeting that we had—even though you didn’t see me. It was February 8, I think, one month after the riots in BrasĂ­lia. You were at the National Museum of the Republic introducing President Lula and his wife, Janja, to an exhibition. And I was covering it—the visit—as a journalist. It caught my attention how concentrated Lula was. He was picking up his glasses to read all the texts closely, and he was paying so much attention to what you were saying. Did you notice that? What do you think most attracted Lula’s attention in that exhibition?

Lilia Schwarcz: Marina, thank you very much for the question—and that’s true. I was invited by the Lula government in the moment of transition to have an art exhibition about democracy in Brasília. The exhibition shows more than two hundred Brazilian artists’ work, focused on the idea of democracy. At the same time, the main goal of the exhibition was to show that the beauty and the challenge of democracy is that it’s incomplete—in a sense—because you always have to fight for rights.

Lula decided to go to the exhibition together with Janja. And when they decided to come, people said to me, Ah, he is going to be in the exhibition just for twenty minutes—be very short. That was the instruction. And then when Lula arrived, he was so curious, so worried about everything. He wanted to learn everything. At the end—I don’t know if you remember—he stayed nearly two hours.

I do remember, because I was there waiting for him to leave and he didn’t leave. Yeah, it was more than one hour.

It was like, Oh, President, I think we have to stop now. And he came with this kind of answer: No, I didn’t see the whole exhibition.

Brazil had four years of a very, very—it’s not conservative, we are talking about an extreme-right government. Very, can I say, retrograde. And then we had a kind of backlash. Having a president that loves art, that wants to understand art, that wants to understand what contemporary painters—like Black painters, women, Indigenous painters—what they have to say about democracy, is very beautiful. You have a president that takes his time to see art and to be in a museum and be completely dedicated to this challenge. It’s a challenge to learn with art.

Yes, it is. And like you said, we have to take care of democracy. Because if we don’t, it could die. Did you think at some point that Brazilian democracy would die during the Bolsonaro government? How did you feel about democracy during the last four years?

It was a very insecure moment in Brazil. And you are completely right: you have to take care of democracy. We have experienced a moment—an international moment, since 2016—when we thought that democracy was the last stage of our happiness and experience. It was not right, Marina. Because we learned that it’s not difficult to have this kind of backlash, this kind of problem. During Jair Bolsonaro’s governance, we didn’t have a government worried about our civil rights or worried about our health, or education.

In my opinion, the fact that Lula da Silva won the election was crucial to our democracy, because Jair Bolsonaro was a president that loved to talk about coup d’état. And he loved to talk beautifully about the military dictatorship that ended in Brazil in ’85. So he was a president that—I used to say that he was himself a coup d’état. In that kind of regime, the beginning is, they win elections. And then slowly by slowly they start to attack democracy as a daily project.

So you said that Bolsonaro is conservative, and more than that. Do you think he is an authoritarian or not? And what about his government? Because there are people who think it’s too much to say that the Bolsonaro government was an authoritarian government.

In your book you point out that Brazilians like to think they are tolerant. They are welcoming, they are cordial. But in fact they are not. They are a conservative people who have always had authoritarian roots, mainly because of slavery. I think there is also the fact that the Brazilian state is a state that grew out of the Portuguese monarchy.

I’m not against conservative people, the conservative party, if they respect the constitution. I think that democracy survives better with difference—this is the rhythm of democracy. You need to have different opinions. You need to have battles. You need to have feuds of narratives. This is not a problem. The problem is when you have not a conservative president, but a very authoritarian one. When I published this book about authoritarianism in Brazil, the book that was launched in Brazil in May 2019, it was considered one of the first books against Bolsonaro. But the thing is, I do not mention Bolsonaro lots of times—just once.

I think one time.

Yes, just once, when I’m talking about patrimonialism. That is the topic of the day now in Brazil. Bolsonaro is suing the press because of this—you can’t talk about it. So why I decided not to write about Bolsonaro is because I wanted to talk about my country.

The book is based on two main ideas. The first one is that our present is full of pasts. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish the slave system—after the United States, after Puerto Rico, and after Cuba. And with a very conservative law—just one line—from that day on, Brazil had no slaves in the country. But that’s all. There were no programs of inclusion. Brazil had slaves—and this is very important to tell to a foreign audience—not just in the north or the south, but all over the country. And Brazil received more Africans than other countries. Brazil likely received almost 45 percent of the Africans that were kidnapped off of the African continent. Slave systems are very rooted in Brazil—but not just the slave systems. We live in a structurally racist society. It’s a kind of language of difference in Brazil, an internal language, an internal secret. So this is not the past, this is our present.

And the second idea was: for those that couldn’t believe that Brazil elected such an authoritarian president, I want to say that Brazilians were always authoritarian, because this is a country that tries to naturalize hierarchy, tries to naturalize white people in power, men in power—and not talk about it. We don’t talk about it, we just live it. Bolsonaro is very authoritarian because he does not believe in parties, in a constitution. He believes in himself and in receiving lots of money. And he was also a digital-populist president, because he was elected digitally and he talked not to Brazil, but just those who elected him.

I love the Palestinian writer Edward Said. He has a book about beginnings, a beautiful book. And in my opinion—because I’m a historian and an anthropologist—beginnings are very important. You can’t not see: Bolsonaro is an authoritarian. His government was completely authoritarian.

Sometimes I find it difficult to define him. I think Bolsonaro is an authoritarian, but his government was, like, wannabe authoritarian. But also I agree with you. There are a lot of points that defined Bolsonaro’s government as an authoritarian government—he’s always, always harassing and attacking journalists and the press. I was the victim of this a lot of times. Violence and intolerance against minorities, denial of science, hate speech, “fake news.”

And what about the army? I think the army is more politicized than ever because, during Bolsonaro’s government, they returned to the middle of the political scene—and this is a problem that has not been solved. How do you think the military can be pacified in the Lula government, and how important is the military in terms of authoritarian influence?

I think it’s a key question in our fight for democracy. Lots of people said that the story of the Capitol in Washington, DC, after Biden’s election was very similar to January 8 in Brazil. It was and it wasn’t. It was, because they really invaded very symbolic places: buildings, palaces. But it wasn’t—because, in the Brazilian case, the army, as we now know, may have taken part in it.

The army has been influential since the Paraguayan War, which started around the end of the Civil War in the United States. That was the beginning, and that was the moment when a state army created an image—a fake image—that they will save the country, that they were the saviors of the country. That was the same language and concept used in 1889, when Brazil started to be a republic. That was a kind of civil and military coup d’état, but the military made a coup d’état over the civilian population. So the beginning of the Brazilian-republic story is a military story. And that happened again in 1930: another coup d’état. And that happened again in 1945 and then happened again in ’64, when we had a military regime from ’64 to ’85. Brazil has a beautiful constitution that was enacted in 1988 that we Brazilians call the citizens’ constitution. It’s a very generous constitution, but it didn’t touch the military forces.

So what happened? Brazil had a truth commission that could talk about the military that assassinated civilians in Brazil but could not judge them. So this is the pavement, this is the avenue for what happened with Bolsonaro. Because the military had a very fake interpretation of one of the constitution’s articles, that they were a kind of independent force, an independent power. But it’s not like this. In the constitution, the idea is that the army is a neutral power. It’s not a political power, but they used an interpretation that is not correct at all, and became very strong during Bolsonaro’s government.

Lula is now firing or taking out of power a lot of military people—even the head of the army. We broke a story in the Washington Post saying that the general was the guy who said to the minister of justice, “You are not arresting people here in the military during January Eighth.” Lula is making changes—do you think it’s possible he’s going to be successful?

Lula is doing this. His response to the riots of January 8 was very strong. He fired a lot of people and the investigations are still on.

I’ll ask you about journalism, my role here. Because I think that the role of journalists is to put light on the facts that we think are relevant or important. I always try to keep reporting, of course, with accurate data, with good analysis. But a lot of times I wait for someone to do something, like the state or the society. And nothing happens, like you said. They don’t want to discuss a lot of things, and it is frustrating. What do we journalists need to do? Because sometimes they are beating us on the streets, literally.

On January 8 in BrasĂ­lia, I was covering the riots and the attacks, when I was surrounded by more than ten people who knocked me on the ground, kicked me, pulled my hair, broke my glasses. They tried to take my cellphone when they realized that I was a reporter. I was asking questions to a lady that agreed to answer me, but when someone found out that I was a journalist, he started to yell at me. I was surrounded by people, and they literally beat me.

I know that professional journalists have always been annoying to public authorities because we ask questions, we challenge them, we investigate what they are doing. But I don’t know, since the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil: Have ever seen as much violence against the press as during the four years of Bolsonaro? It’s frustrating sometimes. I think we are fighting, fighting, fighting, and nothing happens on the other side. How do you see this relationship with journalism and our role in this scenario?

Journalists are on the spot at the same time, I think, as professors, academics—all people that deal with good information. This is another example of how the government of Bolsonaro was not middle-authoritarian—he was really authoritarian, because he created this atmosphere, this very violent atmosphere.

To talk about this is to talk about not just Bolsonaro, the ex-president, but to talk about the same things happening in the United States. It’s the same in the States. You can talk about Trump, but you can also talk about Trumpists. I’m talking about an extreme-right, radical-right movement. This is a violent movement, a very white, very male movement. These people do not like to inform themselves with good journalism. They inform themselves with fake news. So for them, you are very dangerous. I am very dangerous. Because we come up with other truths. We are fighting for truths. That’s the point.

But I think, Marina, I would love to hear you, too, about this subject. I think that civil society can help journalists and can help the universities and can help our children. They have to learn what’s happening in Brazil.

Yeah, and I think to overcome this system—of destruction of democracy from the inside, that system that Bolsonaro and other leaders around the world have been using—we need free elections. Which, of course, we have in Brazil, despite the false allegations of fraud spread by Bolsonaro and his supporters.

Talking about the future, you’ve said that you are very optimistic. Are you optimistic even after four years of Bolsonaro, even after January 8? How do you feel about Brazilian democracy?

I always say that I’m very optimistic thinking about the future, but very pessimistic in the present. And this is a philosophical position, because in the present we must be vigilant. If we are good citizens, we must be vigilant and take care of democracy.

Sometimes I am just exhausted, Lilia, when I am traveling around Brazil reporting. Last year during the elections in Brazil, I did a big project, traveling around the country talking to the five groups that could decide the election: women, people from the northeast, agribusiness people, middle-class people, and evangelical people. And when I approached, people were just like, “Get out of here. I hate you. You are a journalist—get out of here.” And they don’t have arguments sometimes, they just have this hate speech. For me it is exhausting.

Sometimes I’m tired, but I know that I have to keep working because the good information, the good analysis, as you said, is the way to fight against this. And this is not over, like you said. Trump was defeated by Biden three years ago, and Trump is still in the US. Bolsonaro was defeated in a super, super close election. Lula won just by, like, two million votes, and bolsonarismo is still in Brazil, all over Brazil—this hate speech and these conservative people. I’m glad that you are optimistic, because sometimes I think I have no energy anymore. So it’s good to hear from you and get a little bit of this energy for me, too.

Marina, we need good journalists, because the conservative thinkers, they are all there. As you mentioned, we had very difficult elections in Brazil. We thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t. We can’t give up.

Before Jair Bolsonaro, I was not on Instagram and social media—and then I thought, I have to be there. This is my role. I studied all my life in public schools. So I need to give back. To give back what? Good information. I use history. But of course, I also use your work, Marina. I need good information, good journalism.

I didn’t give up. Sometimes I’m just tired. But I didn’t give up. I’m working; I’m here; count on me.

That’s very important: to recognize that we are tired, but we are not going to give up. Because we have this fight, this fight for good information and good dialogue.

I always say, I don’t want to make social media like a demon. It’s not a demon. It’s sometimes the result of debate. So I’m not avoiding the debates, I’m just looking for good debates. These right-wing leaders spread, as you mentioned, Marina, hate speech. I try hard to discuss with them—giving numbers, giving facts, quoting journalists, quoting good data. We have to continue, because we have to think not just in the present but the future.

Those attacks I suffered, there are many. And it’s not about me or my friends—a lot of brilliant journalists have been attacked during these last few years. These are attempts to undermine journalism and to stop critical reporting, which is my job. These attacks are part of leaders’ efforts to escape accountability and limit the public response to their undemocratic actions.

It’s like a circle. You need to work to do journalism, to do the critical reporting to stop them or to make sure they don’t escape their accountability. They need to respond to their undemocratic acts. We need to keep doing what we do. Because Bolsonaro may not be in power anymore in Brazil, Bolsonaro may be in Orlando—but his followers are here.

They are here, and I could not agree more with you. We need to be there and we need to talk with people. That’s the point—try to talk, right? And we know that we are not always right. I can be wrong and I can correct myself. I’m not saying I’m right, they are wrong. No. But we can start this kind of dialogue, a qualified dialogue—this is important—with data, with good information.

And get out of the bubble. That’s why I liked that you were going on social media, because we are talking to our friends, but usually they have the same values. We need to go beyond.

Yeah. It’s very comfortable. Even in university—Brazil has a very good university; everything I know I learned there. But sometimes it’s a very protected environment. That’s important, because this protection means we have peace to work and to do our research. This is my job: to develop my research, to find new data, new archives, to question archives. But sometimes you have to go into the public in order to hear, to listen, and in order to speak, to make your voice a little bigger. Not so big, but a little bigger. Even to show what we really do in a university.

I remember the minister of education trying to give not a positive scenario, but a terrible scenario. He said, “Can you imagine that you send your son or your daughter to study in very good schools?”—he said “private schools.” Then he said—and he is the minister of education—“and then your son or daughter decides to go and be an anthropologist?”

I would love it.

So then you have to go public and show the kind of things that you do, that you think, that you promote—that you can help to make this a better country, a better world.

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz and Marina Dias are contributors to CJR. Lilia Moritz Schwarcz is a Brazilian historian and anthropologist; she is a professor at the University of SĂŁo Paulo and a visiting professor at Princeton. Marina Dias is a reporter and news researcher with the Washington Post.