On April 28, 2017, hundreds of cities and towns across Brasil ground to a halt, as the Western Hemisphere’s largest General Strike of the 21st Century paralyzed their transport grids. In São Paulo, the economic heart of the country, 10 train and subway lines were paralyzed and all city bus lines stopped running. Airports were temporarily shut down and nearly all major roads in every big city in the country, incluing Marginal Tiete, Ancheita and 23 de Maio in São Paulo and the Rio-Niteroi bridge in Rio de Janeiro, were closed off during the morning rush by groups of protesters burning tires. Most shops and businesses closed for the day, as millions of people refused to go to work.
The strike was organized by The Frente Brasil Popular (Brazilian Popular Front) and the Povo sem Medo (People without fear) two coalitions of labor union federations, student and professional groups, popular (or poor people’s) social movements such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). Over a million people took to the streets during two preliminary protests held on March 15 and March 31, and organizers estimate that a total of 35 million people people participated on the April 28th General Strike.
The strike organizers issued a series of statements explaining why the strike took place. It was a direct response to Michel Temer’s slashing of labor rights and retirement benifits and a rejection of his argument that Brazil doesn’t have the money to support the retirement system [especially since it has over $374 billion USD in foreign reserves and hundreds of billions in unpaid taxes by the largest corporations, including R$20 Billion owed by Itau Bank that Michel Temer just absolved].
From the size of the event, one would imagine that it would have been a major media event. But Globo TV, the nation’s largest network, refused to give any advance coverage of the strike. On April 28th, it did not use the word “strike” in its coverage. And coverage of the actual event by all of the major media outlets focused on isolated acts of vandalism over interviews with participants or coverage of what the event was about.
Al Jazeera’s March 6 episode of The Listening Post featured a report called Brazil: An Inconvenient Protest for the Media, which focuses on the difference in coverage in the between the conservative pro-impeachment protests of 2016 and April 28th’s general strike. One of the people they interviewed is João Feres Junior, director of the Media and Public Sphere Research Laboratory at Universidade Estadual de Rio de Janeiro. In addition to his work as a university professor and research institute director, Feres is known for his blog, O Manchetometro, which categorizes and quantifies news coverage in the major media on specific issues.
Al Jazeera was kind enough to share the transcripts of this interview with Brasil Wire. The transcripts were edited for readability. The March 6 episode of The Listening Post can be seen here.
Please summarise the findings of your research into TV and print media coverage of Temer’s government. What are your main findings and what conclusions have you drawn about how media presentations influence the debate around Temer and his reforms?
João Feres Junior: Our research is quantitative. It’s plotted in figures so that you can see the exact number of news pieces that are produced and their position regarding a certain subject in terms of negativity or positivity or neutrality. These are the three values. They usually don’t do many positive pieces. They are either neutral, describing things, or they make value judgments which are usually negative.
When Dilma Rouseff was is in power coverage was extremely negative. She got three times more negative coverage than neutral during her second term. 300-400 negative articles would appear about her in the major newspapers every month. When Michel Temer took over the negative curve went way down and they started to treat him in a more neutral way.
The intensity of the coverage dropped significantly. He gets around 100 negative articles and another 100 neutral ones per month. It is a little bit more neutral than negative. So the ratio, the difference between the two is amazing- it’s really appalling. And you have to take into consideration that he took office in the middle of the economic crisis and he hasn’t solved it. Furthermore his government has been in a political crisis ever since he took office. He had to fire several cabinet ministers because of corruption scandals. So he is not running this great government that would warrant this kind of coverage change.
The media promotes the reforms by using economic language and the language of necessity. I’m talking mainly about newspaper editorials that have more space for reflection and are a bit more sophisticated in their arguments. They say that Temer is not perfect, the way he got in power might not have been ideal but agenda he’s proposing is necessary, therefore, he must be supported. They depoliticise the situation and try to frame it in economic terms to give the whole situation a sense of urgency, of necessity, despite the fact that the merit of these reforms is highly questionable.
What is your overall evaluation of the coverage of last week’s strike in the mainstream media?
I think the most striking thing about Brazilian media coverage is that many channels and programmes produced a coverage of an event that clearly had two sides to it and only gave voice to one side. It is amazing that many of them still do that- it’s current practice. The very basics of professional journalism are blatantly violated. I think that the Brazilian media was very much pro-government in its coverage.
Please describe the difference between the mainstream media attention given to last year’s protests that led to the impeachment of President Roussef with the coverage (or lack of it) given to the build up to the recent general strike. What is your explanation for this difference?
They strongly supported the demonstrations that led to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. It was really explicit and it was the exact opposite what they do now. In 2015 and again in 2016, they didn’t just announce the demonstrations in advance, they also gave times and locations where the people were supposed to gather. They televised these events 24 hours a day- it was full coverage all the time. They interrupted the regularly scheduled programmes with updates about the protests. It was amazing and very intense. Globo was the most telling example. In March 2016 there were protests against Dilma and the headline the next day was that the Brazilian people went to the streets to ask for her resignation. Three days later there was a large anti-impeachment protest organised by the left. The headline the next day was that Dilma supporters went to the streets. So the first protest was portrayed as an act of the Brazilian people whereas the latter was ‘just Dilma supporters’.
When there were acts of violence in pro-impeachment protests they were described as the consequences of acts of particular individuals who were angered with Dilma Rousseff. But during the general strike, violence and rioting was portrayed as characteristic of the entire situation- the whole protest. So it’s quite different.
Given that the general strike had been planned far in advance with major events building up to April 28, how do you interpret the lack of coverage of from mainstream media outlets prior to the strike?
It wasn’t only a lack of coverage prior to the strike. It was also the fact that during the strike they acted as if it was just something that was organised by the unions. They implied that only unionised workers stopped and the other workers were stopped against their will. On top of that they associated the strike with violence and rioting. This is a constant framing in the Brazilian media- passing this image that people who go out in the streets to protest are violent and crazy and that they do stupid things. They are not portrayed as people who are lawfully demanding their rights. The media coverage was very negative and they did not publicize much about the organizational work that went on before the event began.
There was little variety in the way the TV news programmes covered the strike. Some of the TV channels like Globo and SBT were totally pro-government. The three main newspapers in Brazil had almost homogeneous coverage of the rioting. They basically characterised the strike as an act by the unions and marked by violence. There is also this interpretation in their editorials that the government reforms are inevitable and Brazil really needs to do them in order to get back on track. The implication was that the strike should not or could not prevail.
Regardless of their coverage the strike seemed to have been quite successful- it spread all over the country and stopped most activities in all of the major Brazilian cities.
Describe how Globo used their media power to actively promote the protests that led to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. What does this say about media conglomerates in Brazil and how they are politically aligned?
I like to say that Brazil has five or six Fox News channels. The entire big media acts like Fox News. It’s quite amazing. But let me qualify this. They don’t present themselves as right wing commentators- they are not openly right wing. They try to pass themselves off as democratic. They try to pass themselves off as balanced commentators who are only saying true and very reasonable things about facts. But they all happen to be on the same side. These companies are very close to each other in terms of politics. They have been conservative for decades and currently they are all in favour of the government. They are in favor of downsizing government programmes and are in favour of the reforms. They are opposed to labor rights.
But Globo is much larger than anything else on the media landscape. Folha de São Paulo has a big newspaper and a big internet news portal but that’s about it. Globo is dominant. They own newspapers, radios, open access channels, cable channels. They own the internet and cable TV backbones and all the communications infrastructure in Brazil. Their dominance is amazing. And Globo was a staunch supporter of the impeachment. You could see that with the coverage given on Jornal Nacional, which is the most popular TV news program in Brazil. Globo used to be more balanced in its coverage of government. Perhaps it was biased but not extremely biased. It would give some room to different voices from the Brazilian government during PT’s terms in office. But starting with Dilma’s second term after the 2014 election they changed the way they covered the government and started being almost exclusively negative. It wasn’t just on Jornal Nacional, but they began attacking PT full time on all of their news programs. Their cable news program was amazing. These guys would run a story on anything related to PT or Dilma or Lula and they would cut to the studio where five commentators would criticize Lula and Dilma. They would talk endlessly about them guys and always had something negative to say.
What was the primary message that the media propagated during the anti-Dilma Rousseff protests?
During the lead up to Dilma’s impeachment there were two sides of Brazilian society. There were street protests for and against the impeachment and they attracted a comparable number of people. But the way they were covered was very unnerving. They would portray the pro-impeachment protestors as representing the Brazilian people and portray the anti-impeachment protesters as being just a bunch of Lula supporters.
The media message was ,“We have to get rid of these guys”. But when they did it the people who took power were much more corrupt that Dilma Rousseff. So it turns out that the main issue was not corruption but the dismantling of social policies that the PT set up that made a huge difference for many Brazilians.
Is there a segment of Brazilian society that the mainstream media are failing to represent in their coverage of Temer’s economic reforms? By downplaying and demonising the strikers and the anti-Temer movement media, are media outlets catering to a certain class or demographic?
When you see the demographics of the impeachment supporters they were mostly the southeastern white middle class. If you want to give comparative media coverage between the 2016 impeachment protests and the 2017 general strike a class reading, you can say that the media silences the voice of the poor who are the ones that are getting hit the most by the economic crisis and Temer’s reform policies. When you cut social policies the worst hit are the ones who need them. The middle class and rich usually need state services much less than the poor.