BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. OTM listeners might remember a recent diplomatic flap involving the New York Times correspondent in Brazil. The reporter, Larry Rohter, had written an article suggesting that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had something of a drinking problem. The union-backed Brazilian government responded by expelling Rohter, an order that was eventually rescinded under heavy criticism from at home and abroad.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Lula is again under fire. At issue is a proposal, currently pending in Brazil's Congress, for a National Journalism Council with the power to, quote, "orient, discipline and monitor reporters." It would apply to foreign correspondents like Rohter as well as to domestic reporters who could, theoretically, be barred from the profession if they violated its new code of ethics. In a recent piece, Rohter himself noted that Lula's proposal had prompted harsh criticism from journalists, human rights groups and legal experts. But that assertion, it turns out, was only half correct. The plan has been denounced, but it did not originate with President Lula. Journalist Antonio Brasil is on sabbatical from his job teaching journalism in Rio de Janeiro, and he joins us in our studio. Welcome back to the show.
ANTONIO BRASIL: Oh, thank you. Nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So if Lula didn't hatch this plan for a journalism council, who did?
ANTONIO BRASIL: This is a proposal that comes from the Federation of Brazilian Journalism, the National Federation of Journalists.
BOB GARFIELD: It's hard for me to understand a move like this enlisting the government's participation as anything but self-defeating for journalists. What was the union thinking?
ANTONIO BRASIL: First of all, you have to remember that Brazil now has a left wing government with a former union leader as president. They have a special relationship -- unions and the government. Lula and the government officials were very clear in terms that this press council would be a professional body, similar to those that regulate other activities, you know, like doctors, engineers and lawyers, and it would be free from political control. But no one is that naive to think that a very powerful press council like this would not have strong links or be under the influence of government.
BOB GARFIELD: So this body, with what will almost certainly be very strong links to the Lula government, its decisions will have the force of law, no?
ANTONIO BRASIL: Yes, they would, including the idea who can be a journalist -- you need to have a degree, you would have to have a card from the council, you have to pay taxes, you know, some kind of a levy to the council, which is another thing that most Brazilian journalists were not very keen on.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't that just inviting an increasingly autocratic regime to stifle expression?
ANTONIO BRASIL: It could be. I think it's a possibility. But on the other hand, you have to remember that in Brazil, like in most places in Latin America including Venezuela, very powerful families control the media. Those families have a tradition of being against unions, against regulation, in terms of rights, in terms of benefits. So you see, it's much more complicated than saying that a journalist cannot have a special relationship with government.
BOB GARFIELD: It strikes me that what is at stake here is nothing less than a fundamental of democracy, which is that the press, however responsible or irresponsible, should be left alone to do what it does without being vetted along the way by any kind of government body.
ANTONIO BRASIL: But again, it's one thing for you to have this ideal of an independent press with a lot of competition in America. The New York Times competes with the Washington Post and the L.A. Times and CBS against NBC -- but if you see in Latin America, there is no real competition. The power that comes from media barons, it's sometimes even more powerful than governments. You know, we have examples in Brazil. You know, the very first election after military rule, you know, Fernando Collor de Mello, he was elected because he had the support of a very strong media corporation, and that was a key factor for his election. No wonder the government is very sensitive about this free press, free independent journalists that work for the big media, and people are starting to realize that when we talk about freedom of the press in Brazil, maybe it's freedom for some big corporation to say whatever they want, and not necessarily a very representative or democratic press.
BOB GARFIELD: Perhaps the media barons are disproportionately powerful at, at this moment in Brazilian history, but as Larry Rohter points out in his story, this proposal for a regulatory body comes at a time when the press has been rooting out corruption at the very core of the Lula administration. Shouldn't we be suspicious that this proposal would come up at a time when the Lula administration has been repeatedly embarrassed by this kind of story?
ANTONIO BRASIL: Bob, you've got the main criticism to this whole story. It's the timing: why now? You have to see it as an experiment. The previous governments were either a military dictatorship or neo-liberal governments, one that free market, free for all, and journalists had to survive. And the Lula government, you know, this new trend in Brazilian politics, they are under very heavy pressure to show that they are not the same government as before. But there is so much pressure for you to do something, that you don't realize that okay, you have to do something, but you don't have to do something now.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Antonio, once again, thanks very much.
ANTONIO BRASIL: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Antonio Brasil works as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. He's currently a visiting scholar teaching journalism at Rutgers University. [MUSIC]