Echoes in the Echo Chamber: Brasil, Elections, Media & the Ghosts of ’64.

“There’s an unwritten understanding amongst Foreign Correspondents that the U.S. wants PSDB in power.” – Foreign Correspondent, São Paulo, 22/6/2013

Originally published March 2015.

As we discussed in the article ‘Brasil’s Citizen Kanes’ the mainstream press in the country has a long tradition of antidemocratic bias.

In 1989, as documented in the British film “Beyond Citizen Kane”, TV Globo famously edited Presidential debates to favour their preferred candidate in what was the first true democratic election after over two decades of dictatorship. They, along with Globo, Grupo Abril, and both of Brasil’s serious broadsheets Folha de São Paulo and O Estado de São Paulo, actively supported the Dictatorship itself. This reflects deep-seated Udenismo, an elite conservatism that pre-dates any current party-political branding.

With problems for the government already piling up, currency dropping against the US dollar, and Petrobras scandal accelerating, in recent months the ‘grande mídia brasileira‘ has also upped the ante, omitting to report on Government communications, subtly distorting perception of statistics, and actively promoting anti-Rousseff demonstrations.

Brasil’s Left call this sector of the media – the vast majority of it, “Partido da Imprensa Golpista” (Media Coup Party) or PiG, and elsewhere only the magazine Carta Capital stands out as a small but significant competing voice. As far as the sitting government is concerned, the Brazilian press is an opposition in itself, operating much like the Propaganda Model proposed by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky’s critique of the media in the United States. Against this background it is actually surprising that the PT (Workers’ Party) ever won an election.

Reporters without Borders issued a recent report raising serious question about the plurality and bias within the Brazilian press, called Brazil, the country of 30 Berlusconis. Why is this relevant to foreign media? Because many working here use the local press as their main source for stories and/or are answerable to editors who only seem interested in reenforcing stereotypes of favela, football and forests.

In an interview with English lifestyle magazine Monocle, Brasil’s “Oprah”, Fátima Bernardes, speaks openly that Globo is and always has been specifically by and for the upper and middle classes, while Brasil’s media often cover the remaining sectors of the population in the style of National Geographic.

A frequent comment from foreign journalists is that the complexity of the country’s history and society makes it difficult to write contextually for a disinterested home readership, which is unfortunately also a tacit admission that coverage is flawed from the outset – everyone would prefer to be able to write in more detail, but can’t.

One of most misleading images, repeated time and time again, is that of “Dilma Rousseff, Former Marxist Guerrilla” which ignores her far more mundane 20 year history as a career public servant, prior to presidency. The key tenets of her advice were often encouraging increased private sector involvement in the economy, specifically her specialist area of energy policy. In fact, in all but aesthetic it is difficult to realistically describe Workers’ Party governments as anything beyond centre-left. She in fact came from Leonel Brizola‘s PDT, which ran alongside PT in 1998. Some PT members still consider Rousseff an entryist in this respect.

But perhaps the greatest myth of all is that of the Golden Era of hyper-efficient and moral PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party) mandates versus the economic mismanagement and corruption of the PT. This line is repeated time and time again in the English language press, ignoring both party’s records in office.

Corruption, nepotism and a clientelist power structure did not begin in Brasil on January 1st 2003. Aside from its successes, the underlying tragedy of the 12 years of Workers’ Party governance is they have shown too much acquiescence to Brasil’s old elites to pass through their policy platform of social investment and real salary increases paid for by a stable economy. Today’s political problems are the same Brasil had on December 31st 2002.

The truth is far more nuanced and Brasil, aside from reform, desperately needs more effective opposition – beyond the hysteria & polarisation, the reality is that whichever party wins, they have to do business with the PMDB.

Any regular observer here knows what to expect from popular hard-right news weekly, Veja. One veteran reporter described Veja as 1/3 Journalism, 1/3 Framing and 1/3 Pure Falsehood & Propaganda.

Radically conservative & partisan, Veja is to a large degree responsible for the increasingly hateful polarisation between supporters of PT & PSDB, particularly in São Paulo. It has recently, under legal pressure, been forced into publishing an apology for printing untrue allegations about former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but the most striking part of its election campaign was when they published a inflammatory cover featuring Dilma Rousseff & Lula, based on false allegations of explicit knowledge of Petrobras corruption scheme. “They Knew Everything” it announced, and launched two days before election, with campaigning effectively over, timed intentionally so that Rousseff’s campaign could not respond. On Election day itself, a rumour spread via messaging service Whatsapp that the informant behind the story had been murdered.

This was an echo of the 1989 election where businessman Abílio Diniz was kidnapped on election day, which was falsely blamed upon the Workers’ Party, playing into a climate of cold-war style anti-communist paranoia which still pervades today.

Currently, another message is circulating via the same Whatsapp platform, targeted at the vulnerable, warning of imminent Military takeover.

Perfect Storms

O fim do Brasil” is an apocalyptic fantasy of economic and societal meltdown which persists beyond the election because those who believe in the fait accompli of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment seek to panic the population into believing it is the only way to save the country’s economy, and specifically the value of its currency. Brasil is still deeply haunted by the crashes and hyperinflation of the 1980s & 1990s.

This is despite the current institutional crisis barely registering compared to crises of the past, such as the crashes of 1998-99, or the current strain on energy supply in some areas versus the mass blackouts of 2001-02 which were the final nail in the PSDB’s coffin for the electorate.

A crucial problem with political reporting in Brasil is that the basics of the federal system are also ignored, and thus not understood, with many unaware of which branch of government, Federal, State or Municipal, is responsible for what. For example, in June 2013 actions of military police, on orders of State Governments of opposition parties, such as PSDB, were routinely attributed to Federal Government in Brasilia, while protests about the services provided by those State Governments were also already portrayed as “Anti Dilma” when at that point she enjoyed 70% approval, the currency was strong (many in the media argued it was dangerously overvalued), inflation low, and the Petrobras scandal had yet to come to light.

Master Narratives

There are many reasons, conflicts and ambitions which influence the way Brasil is now portrayed editorially in North America & Western Europe. Even in 2012 there was a marked difference in the kind of stories that made it outside, yet in 2013, negative portrayal & sensationalism swallowed most of the rational reporting, resulting in a World Cup which was effectively weaponised, with many analysts & commentators inside & out who honestly believed that an organisational disaster (which never happened), mass protests (never came) or even humiliating defeat against a major rival (no comment), could actually swing the election.

Al Jazeera English were rewarded for the quality & balance of their reporting with access to Dilma Rousseff for a TV interview, the only other granted being with the unofficial media spokeswoman of the US State Department, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

The level of hostility towards Rousseff from the priesthood of Washington Consensus is actually puzzling; she is, again, certainly not the “Former Marxist Guerrilla” depicted, but a developmentalist technocrat with a good record on education, social programmes & reforms to the energy sector, including a significant role for private investment. Some Brazilians hypothesise that Brasil’s position as the sole BRICS nation in the Americas and its central role in Mercosur lay behind the hostility. According to leaked cables, the US feels threatened by Mercosur consolidation & it is assumed also to seek to prise Brasil from its relationship with China & Russia.

In 2007, previous president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva remarked that the United States couldn’t accept Brasil becoming a world power. He was furious at the re-inauguration of the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet for the first time since the 1950s, which coincided with the discovery of massive deepwater Oil reserves, or Pre-Sal. Leaked documents showed that targeting by the NSA of Brasil, its Oil & Gas industry and the president herself, was far more widespread than anticipated, one of the maps showing that supposed US ally Brasil was roughly as surveilled as traditional enemy Russia. These issues, despite their unquestionable relevance & however well documented, currently seem like a complete editorial taboo.

The government documents which formed the basis of recent award winning documentary, ‘The day that lasted 21 years‘, specifically about the U.S. role, in connivance with local military & elites, in the Coup of 1964, took 40 years to declassify and make for fascinating reading.

Hostility towards progressive governments in Brasil or South America in general is of course nothing new – take a look at how Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador & Venezuela have been treated recently, but Brasil has always been somewhat different in its relationship with outside.

In fact, besides a honeymoon period from around 2007-2011 – when, with the country, having resisted the global economic crisis, became increasingly attractive for foreign investors – the depiction of Brasil in general has followed a similar pattern to that of the other major BRICS nations, China, India & Russia, where global problems are framed as unique to that country creating a platform from which to denigrate them – there exists a profound asymmetry between the way the developing and developed world report each other.

A regular but informal monthly meeting, organised by Reuters staff, brings together many foreign journalists working in Brasil, which might explain the similarity of reporting. Reuters have been accused of omitting information that runs against narrative. As with any foreign posting, many based in Brasil do not speak Portuguese, and Reuters themselves recently advertised for a new Bureau Chief, with a grasp of the host country’s language not required.

Also constant have been attempts to conflate small fringe protests or even regular industrial action with what happened in June 2013, with some journalists complaining that unless something is on fire, their editors or agencies are simply not interested.

The Working Class and Urban Left which brought PT to power and kept them there are rarely consulted by foreign media at all – at best ignored, and at worst, infantilised.

Election Round 1: Santa Marina

In the early stages of the election following the shock death of Eduardo Campos, there was widespread beatification of Marina Silva, who was consistently depicted as a Green Progressive candidate despite her own social/evangelical conservatism and backing from the Ethanol industry & Brasil’s major banks. This played into the readership-friendly environmental framing of many Brasil stories in Liberal press such as Guardian, New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

One correspondent complained that a piece written on an unrelated topic was simply shoehorned by their editor into one about Marina Silva.

More recently the water crisis has been portrayed as primarily, or even exclusively environmental, rather than political and human. This checks boxes on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to attitudes towards Brasil and its own development.

An example of the disregard for Brasil’s sovereignty was in 2006, when then UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband, backed by Tony Blair, proposed a “privatisation” of the Amazon, home to twenty million people, where Brasil would cede control to corporate owners who would protect it – a greenwashed assault on the nation’s territorial integrity which would not be tolerated by any.

During the first phase of the election, Foreign Policy ran an op-ed called “Marina Silva: Now that’s what I call a leader.”, another opined that “Dilma should just let the opposition take this one”.

Most jarringly of all, the Times (UK) financial section ran with “How to back Brazilian Regime Change“.

The most surprising aspect of this headline is that it did not cause an international incident.

Many post-election asked what happened to the revolutionary spirit of June 2013, assuming it would translate into support for Marina Silva, yet it was quite easy to find if you actually looked – numbers out in the original protests roughly equalled the increase in vote gained by far-left PSoL, around 1m more than their 2010 total, and the party won heavily amongst the very São Paulo university students who led those demonstrations whose images went around the world.

Election Round 2: The Orthodox Aécio Neves

Editorial framing & stenography, the market-noise of Bloomberg & Reuters, NGO-funded astroturf, and brazen neo-liberal dogma of the Economist, result in narratives on Brasil that are dripping with the interests of international capital.

Election buzzwords “Market-Friendly”, “Pro-Growth”, “Orthodox” overlooked that no candidate was seriously proposing a breakdown of Brasil’s fierce protectionist trade law. Foreign media practically invented Aecio’s policy platform, with him having published no specific, costed policy document.

What both major opposition candidates did have in common was raising the possibility of further Petrobras privatisation & an “independent” Central Bank. The disastrous record of PSDB’s last term in office, from 1998-2002, marked by currency crash, high unemployment, rampant inflation cut-price privatisations & economic rule by the International Monetary Fund was overlooked completely. Interestingly it was Rousseff’s warning to President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the impending energy crisis that swept the country in 2001- 2002 that prevented blackouts in Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and Santa Catarina. Again this is ignored in favour of the catchier “Former Marxist Guerrilla”.

A trope circulated amongst supporters of the defeated PSDB which characterised the voting of states as “Poor North” & “Rich South” thus ignoring the complexities within.

Then the Economist went a distasteful stage further – with the vote barely counted, postulating that “If percentage of GDP could vote, rather than people, how would the election result have been different?”.

The English speaking financial press especially have a very clear and singular narrative as to what needs to be done to “fix” Brasil:

Unions must to weakened and labour laws aimed at protecting working and pay levels removed to encourage a flexible labour market – as in the USA and UK.
Importation tariffs and subsidies protecting Brazilian businesses my be removed to allow inefficient business to fail and cheaper imported products to reduce inflation.
Requirements for local content in mayor projects in industries like Oil & Gas must be abolished to reduce costs.
Brasil’s bloated taxation system needs to be comprehensively reformed, to simplify compliance and reduce the tax burden on business.

But this dogma needs to be picked apart. Out of these only the last one, namely tax reform, is actually part of the broader problem. Brasil’s real problems are political, not economic. The reason why this is ignored is a tendency among the financial press, fed on a diet of Friedman and Classical economic theory, to consider boots on the ground politics as an annoying diversion from tidy theory.

Election Round 3: Ghosts of ’64

Since November, repeated emphasis on the narrowness of the victory margin, despite 3 million votes being equivalent to the population of neighbouring Uruguay, has given the misleading impression of Rousseff being elected without proper mandate, when only a similar margin secured Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, with no such doubts cast upon its validity.

Though she now faces a very difficult period, the Petrobras scandal looming, flat GDP, reform desperately needed with the most conservative congress since the dictatorship, and tenuous coalition allies & the powerful PMDB holding most of the cards – there was still no doubt who won the Presidential election.

Some journalists complained that the election result was boring, as there was nothing else to write about.

But attempted impeachment is now effectively Round 3 of the election. The Financial Times published a list of 10 reasons why that could possibly happen, although this was republished domestically as if actually in favour of it. Coverage such as this over the last few years has been responsible for a gradual erosion of foreign perception as a country in which to invest, although this has not been reflected in a serious fall of foreign direct investment.

Foreign media has been extremely reticent to use the word “Coup” in any reports to describe what has been happening since the election, whereas “Golpe”, and “Golpista” are commonplace in equivalent Brazilian articles. Rousseff herself has referred to this potential “Third round” as a Coup. Many still consider that word to mean tanks in the street, whereas in modern history this has not been the method.

If this is a Coup, then it began long before the election, and has been a background process since at least June 2013, when street protests, originally of the left, were first co-opted by the opposition. Those who created the movement went back to their homes en masse, and the name of PSDB’s parliamentary bloc, “Change Brazil” became a faux revolutionary slogan unwittingly shared around the world.

Some would argue that the conditions for a Coup have been present since the moment Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in 2003.

Small protests called by the far-right in January calling for impeachment and even a return to military rule, were amplified by US outlets, with attendances routinely exaggerated elsewhere. Images are everything, and we already saw how those those beamed around the world of crowds packed on the roof of congress in 2013 gave a very different impression of the protest’s messages & aims than those found on the street.

At time of press a large nationwide pro-impeachment (some calling it Pro-Coup) demonstration is planned on March 15 and spreading via social media. There is no doubt about the character of this one, but it remains to be seen what the turnout will be, or if impeachment is even a realistic legal & political possibility. Many are signed up to the idea of it without actually understanding the process or what will result, for example, many simply believe the falsehood that Aécio Neves will assume Presidency. A social media profile promoting the impeachment protest called “VemPraRua” (or “Come to the streets” – a popular slogan from June 2013) has over 250,000 followers, but this and others such as MBL have come under scrutiny about their financial backing and motivations.

Others are expressing their intent not to attend, who feel it is an erosion of Brasil’s still youthful democracy.

Discontent is very real, how much of that discontent has been stoked by media, and whether it extends beyond groups who were positionally opposed to the government already, also remains to be seen. The same groups complained, even before the election, that should their candidate lose they would seek impeachment or even call for military intervention, yet many will argue that their intent is no more sinister than the impeachment of Fernando Collor in 1992, as opposed to the street protests that gave the Coup of 1964 the impression of majority support.

There is another protest planned two days earlier on the 13th, though it has attracted little media attention in comparison. It has been called by the union CUT, and other social movements, in favour of political reform & in defence of democracy, Petrobras, and also against austerity measures similar to those proposed by the opposition, yet introduced by Rousseff’s coalition government. What happens over the coming weeks with such demonstrations will be a battle, not only of militancy & mobilisation, but of media, an area where the right wing hold total superiority.

(Update: Analysis of both protests can be found here.)

Pra Frente, Brasil

The biggest risk to Brasil now, besides impeachment, is inertia, in that the usual largesse the Workers’ Party had to provide its pork loving allies is limited. This means the usual way of doing politics in Brasil, namely clientelism, is problematic. We have seen the result of this in the ongoing Petrobras scandal as PDMB leaders decided to throw tantrums rather than help their fellow Brazilians by allowing a program of fiscal adjustment to past through unhindered.

Brasil is without doubt in an enormously better position economically than in 2002, indeed a different reality for the majority of Brazilians, and amongst all the talk of crises & perfect storms, the statistics do not support it, and besides, $370bn USD in reserves should provide ample protection. Brazilians have been through far worse, and they do not want to go back; but the biggest miscalculation by analysts is underestimating their ability to look after themselves.