Bob Fernandes on the Media, Coronavirus and Brazil’s Far Right

Bob Fernandes, 65, is a veteran print and television journalist from Bahia who’s personal youtube channel has nearly 200,000 followers. Since starting his career in the 1970s, he has worked as a reporter and editor at some of the largest mainstream media outlets in Brazil, including Veja, Istoé and Folha de São Paulo and is one of the founders of Carta Capital, the largest left of center news magazine in Brazil. Author of over 150 magazine cover stories, Fernandes has covered 7 Brazilian and one US presidential election (Bush vs Clinton). Today, he is known as one of the nation’s most astute political analysts and one of the most important critics of the Brazilian mainstream media (although he is quick to point out that the problems are structural and not caused by individual reporters). Fernandes was recently interviewed about the relationship between the Brazilian media, coronavirus an far right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for a story which aired on the Al Jazeera television program, the Listening Post. The producers were kind enough to forward the transcripts of the full interview to Brasil Wire, and the following represents a sizeable portion of that interview, edited for readability. – BM

Bolsonaro’s reckless response to the pandemic has been condemned by politicians and media across the political spectrum in Brazil. Please give us a sense of what Bolsonaro is telling Brazilians right now – what is the message he is sending and what is the image he is trying to project at this moment?

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Brazil, Brazil was already facing a very serious economic crisis which was the result of misplaced bets in the so-called market – of an economy adopting to a particularly extreme form of liberal capitalism.

The President gambled that, in a country with 70 million living below the poverty line, the chaos for the economy would be far worse than that caused by the pandemic deaths. This was a reckless gamble because he was gambling with the lives of of thousands of people. Of course, gradually this led to ever-growing repercussions, including amongst his allies. He is now basically isolated along with a small group of people whom I would not hesitate to call fascists, because they are fascists.

He became even more isolated by the resignation of his Justice Minister, Sérgio Moro. Moro is backed by a substantial portion of the population because of his track record as a judge – despite having committed many illegal acts during his leading of the Lava Jato investigation.

The slightly less negative consequence of Judge Moro’s departure (although the coronavirus issue remains far more serious) is that President Bolsonaro will now find it harder to continue with his project to bring about an even more radical form of authoritarianism, because with Moro’s departure he has lost an important segment of his support from the right-wing.

Bolsonaro has staged one spectacle after another through this crisis. Can you talk about some of the locations and settings where Bolsonaro has held gatherings and describe the visuals and messaging of these events?

President Bolsonaro has been mingling in crowds and telling them that coronavirus is just “a little flu”. He did this to a group of a few hundred protesters right outside the Palacio da Alvorada, his residence in Brasilia, he did it in Goiania, he did it in suburbs of Brasilia like Ceilandia and Sobradinho.

The most serious case was on April 28 when he did this outside the Army HQ in Brasilia, in front of a few hundred followers who were sporting signs and banners calling for a military intervention and a return to dictatorship.

The President is promoting physical contact between people. On Friday, when he responded to the justice minister Sergio Moro’s resignation he convened his entire cabinet for a press conference without any masks. Only the Finance Minister was wearing a mask, the rest were all gathered together without masks. This is undoubtedly encouraging the population, sending them a clear signal to ignore local isolation rules.

Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has insulted and humiliated journalists who publish or broadcast news he doesn’t like. The criticism has intensified during this pandemic. Can you talk about some of this recent criticism? How does it allow Bolsonaro to control public debate and are Brazilians buying it?

His most offensive criticism was directed at a great reporter from Folha de Sao Paulo named Patricia Campos Mello. He made a sexual suggestion which I’m not sure how you’re going to translate saying that she had sex with certain person in exchange for information on Bolsonaro.

Then he made a hand gesture aimed at the press, which in Portuguese is known as ‘giving the banana’ but which you are welcome to render according to your own preference.

Basically he has made constant aggressions against the press ever since his election campaign. But the media have some responsibility for this, because in order to remove the Workers Party and its allies from power, they greatly exaggerated the mistakes made by the PT. This is serious enough, but it goes beyond that. The media fed off misinformation coming from the Lava Jato investigation that was led by Judge Sergio Moro.

The investigation should have been led by the Attorney General’s Office and, not by a judge. In Brazil judges rule on trials but the Attorney General’s Office is supposed to coordinate investigations together with the police. But it was Judge Moro who led the investigation. And what did the media, who were feeding off the investigation for all their news bulletins, do? In a context in which all politicians, all parties and all businesses had been tainted by allegations of maintaining slush funds, the media chose to focus entirely on the PT while ignoring everybody else – disregarding what was a completely generalized practice. This opened up a Pandora’s Box and the people turned to the dark side. And what is the dark side? Jair Bolsonaro and his fascists. So the great majority of the so-called mainstream media are also responsible for having brought this situation upon Brazil. Now, they act like they are against it but history doesn’t hide anything.

History is there for you, for anyone who cared to watch the news coming out of Brazil over the past few years. The media, unfortunately, had a very significant role in the disastrous situation that Brazil is mired in today. And now Bolsonaro has turned on them.

Bolsonaro has an extensive social media network, especially on Facebook, that feeds his own ‘fake news’ to the people, daily. It’s a world of illusion where the earth is flat and the flu is a “Chinese virus”.

So he sells his lies and people fall for it, they believe it. So as far as his followers are concerned, the mainstream Brazilian media are lying. This is the basic word he is using all the time. ‘You lie’, ‘you are against me’, ‘you want to remove me from power’, ‘you are communists’. Whoever criticizes him is a communist whether they are or not! This is actually what we have least of here in Brazil, but he still says they are all communists. Furthermore, he is constantly dismissing science and scientists. When he was still allied with Sérgio Moro, their support base came from the people who get their news through the social media networks that they had set up. This is something that’s started long before the 2018 election campaign. Now they have split in two.

Is it fair to say that Bolsonaro’s actions have unified media outlets that would otherwise be at odds?

I wouldn’t say it has unified them. What we have is a temporary, shared interest by the big media companies in fighting back against Bolsonaro. And when I say big, I mean those with a long-standing pedigree, not necessarily in terms of their current readership which is low compared to the big TV networks audience.

There are the two newspapers, Folha de Sao Paulo which is more independent than Estado de São Paulo, which follows a more conservative line. There’s also the O Globo newspaper. At the moment, these are all following a similar editorial line, with one notable difference: until now, Globo has had an unbreakable partnership with Judge Moro who was Bolsonaro’s Justice minister until April 24. They play for the same team, basically.

So before, it could be said that there was always this unresolved triangle between Bolsonaro and Moro as his minister, who is also a partner of TV Globo. Despite its support for Moro, Globo was against Bolsonaro, they were great enemies. What happened on Friday then is that the situation has been clarified.

Judge Moro undoubtedly has aspirations to the presidency. This seems obvious to me, at least. He might not make it because politics is something else, it’s constantly changing, but his candidacy has the support of the Globo group.

So there has been a unification against Bolsonaro in terms of the top-tier mainstream media. But the story that is being circulated through social media is something else altogether.

Is it fair to say the media in Brazil have a love/hate relationship with whoever is in power? At the end of the day, aren’t they reliant on the president – whoever he or she is – Because of government advertising spending?

I would say that basically the mainstream media, with a few exceptions, has always had a love relationship with our Presidents. Most of the time, they really help a president get elected. The media is extremely dependent on public funding, especially during a period in which the means of media production are changing radically. Newspapers are selling far less, so are magazines, everybody is losing audience share to social media.

Worse still is the situation in that our biggest television network, Globo, has regional franchises owned by ex-presidents José Sarney and Fernando Collor, They own all of Globo’s local channels in the states of Maranhão and Alagoas. The family of the late president of Congress and governor of Bahia, Antonio Carlos Magalhães, controls all the Globo stations in Bahia. In Ceará, former governor Tasso Jereissati’s wife runs the local Globo stations while he owns the local stations of a different TV network. In Sergipe the Franco family – who have produced a governor a president of the National Confederation of Industries – are owners of the local TV Globo stations. In Pará, Jader Barbalho, former governor, now a senator and father of the current state governor, also owns a the local stations of a national TV network. In Pernambuco, the Coelho family owns the local Globo station in the second biggest metro area of Petrolina. So, this media conglomerate is a lot bigger than just a national television network. It is actually a national network of powerful local political fiefdoms.

Brazil has excellent journalists but an absolutely archaic and obsolete way of dealing with media and communications.

Brazil has 70 million poor people who get most of their information through social media or these long, afternoon TV crime shows. One of these shows hosts, Marcão do Povo, recently said that people infected with Covid-19 should be put in concentration camps. There’s another TV host who constantly mocked Covid-19 who has it now and has had to go off the air. We see similar comments on many radio stations across this vast country with 8 million square kilometres and 210 million people. If the president himself makes these types of remarks, it is very probably that people across the country will do the same.

I think the most serious matter now is the coronavirus pandemic. Brazil was already having a lot of trouble with its public health system, which is called SUS and is similar to the British NHS – a public system offered to 210 million people, which has had funding slashed by neoliberal governments. Brazil’s health system wasn’t ready before, and is not ready to handle this crisis now. The president’s words are only increased the risk for the whole country.

But there is also something that has nothing to do with the pandemic but is another huge problem for the country: the president’s political fragility. Both the Federal Police and the Public Prosecutors Office have ongoing investigations into the activities of President Bolsonaro’s sons.

One of them, Carlos Bolsonaro, is under investigation for links to an illegal fake news network by the Federal Police. His brother Eduardo filed a petition to the Supreme Court to suspend the Congressional investigation underway into the illegal use of fake news. Another brother, Flavio, is being investigated for a series of felonies including embezzling public funds to finance the Rio de Janeiro militias, which are organized crime groups made up of criminal policemen and former policemen. Last weekend The Intercept Brasil published a story about the Rio de Janeiro States Attorneys investigation into this case, and apparently that is one of the reasons that Sergio Moro resigned as Justice Minister, apart from his disagreement with the president’s decision to substitute the Federal Police director.

Thus, we have two ongoing crises. One is infinitely bigger, which is the health crisis; but we also have a very serious political crisis in this extremely vulnerable moment for the country.