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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield, reporting this week from Brazil. In the coming weeks, 30,000-some other journalists will arrive, as well, and that won’t limit themselves to medal coverage. They’ll be out and about, like Alana and me in our city hopping, establishing a sense of place. And there are some places they will flock to in force, to Rio’s famous or notorious favelas. If previous coverage, foreign and domestic, is any guide, this will not end happily.
Of all of Brazil's idiosyncrasies, the sprawling and impoverished favelas are perhaps the most caricatured and the least understood. The real Olympics will be held mostly in Barra, a 45-minute drive west from the city. On our way there, we passed unfinished Metro lines intended to help visitors get to the Games. We drove by the Media Center and stadiums and then stopped at Vila Autódromo, a community that borders the Olympic Park and has been almost entirely demolished. Catherine Osborn, our local producer, literally read the handwriting on a wall.
CATHERINE OSBORN: “The government is an instrument of construction companies. The justice system is working together with the government and has abusive power.”
BOB GARFIELD: In the name of progress, some 500 families were removed, sometimes by police, from homes they had built with their bare hands. Outside a temporary residence in a modified shipping container, we run into Maria da Penha. Last year, Penha, all 93 pounds of her, was one of a human chain of neighbors between the evictees and the police.
INTERPRETER FOR MARIA DA PENHA: There was blood all over my face. I wasn’t the only one who got hit. A lot of other people got hit, as well. There were some rubber bullets and some beatings with a baton.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re not very threatening.
INTERPRETER/MARIA DA PENHA: I’m poor and poor people are a threat to the government. They don’t want to see us doing well, so they view us either as a threat or as a shame, one of the two.
BOB GARFIELD: Maria has made the media rounds. Images of her bloody face helped delay the evictions and win more government compensation for lost homes. But she is fearful that when the media descend for the Games, they will be misled by the Potemkin Village of handsome new public housing.
INTERPRETER/MARIA DA PENHA: I, I hope that, that they tell what actually happened here because, at the end, it’s all going to be beautiful and it will be easy for the mayor to say, look how great they have it now. So I hope that when people come in they talk to us and say what actually happened.
THERESA WILLIAMSON: Well, our experience from the World Cup is that some of the worst reporting on favelas comes during the mega events.
BOB GARFIELD: Theresa Williamson runs an NGO called Catalytic Communities and is editor of Rio on Watch, an online newsletter now dedicated to briefing Rio-bound foreign journalists about life in Rio’s 600 favelas, where roughly 25 percent of the city's residents live. We spoke with her at Autódromo’s only surviving structure, a tiny Catholic Church.
THERESA WILLIAMSON: We get a lot of what we call parachute journalists that don't really know the context, don’t know the impact their reporting might have. They don’t really care, possibly. And they just come in and leave.
BOB GARFIELD: Ahead of the Olympics, Rio on Watch has a website with story suggestions, sources and fact sheets to orient reporters looking for an angle. It also compiles lists of best and worst reporting on favelas. The worst, she says, follow a template, focusing on antisocial behavior and spasms of violence, like this from 60 Minutes.
STEVE KROFT: They have been staging areas for street crime against tourists and safe havens for drug gangs, so well armed that they brought down a police helicopter a few years ago with heavy machine gun fire.
BOB GARFIELD: Meanwhile, scant attention is paid to the ongoing quieter violence of untreated sewage, dilapidated schools and the brutality of the military police pacification troops, just as feared by the residents as the drug and extortion gangs that rule many favelas, because the gangs mostly leave the residents alone. Not so the police, who occupy some favelas with armored vehicles and itchy trigger fingers. Theresa Williamson.
THERESA WILLIAMSON: So there was a case a few years ago where a major US TV news show reached out to us and asked us to spend a couple of days with them showing them some of the issues around. We actually interviewed a family that had recently been victimized by police brutality. Their husband had died by the police. Over 20 officers ended up convicted of his torture and we managed to get an interview, very exclusive, with the wife and her children shortly after this. And then we managed to also get other interviews of people in another favela, where the army had occupied, who were having their houses ransacked.
BOB GARFIELD: But the story went, shall we say, in a different direction.
ABC CORRESPONDENT: In a tiny room down a back alley, we scored a very rare interview with a drug lord, draped in gold and carrying a semiautomatic rifle. He demanded we conceal his identity.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s from ABC's Nightline. But it's not just the international press. Local media do it too.
[CORRESPONDENT SPEAKING IN PORTUGUESE]
Cidade Alerta (Alert City), one of Brazil's crime news shows filled with mayhem and dire warning. This one is hosted by Wagner Montes, who also happens to be vice president of the Rio State Assembly.
[WAGNER MONTES SPEAKING IN PORTUGUESE]
He’s received more votes than any of his colleagues, and he gets huge ratings.
INTERPRETER FOR WAGNER MONTES: People live in fear of violence in Brazil. People like to see police action. They like to see criminals being arrested. They cheer for the police.
BOB GARFIELD: We met Wagner Montes in his legislative office where, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, we spied a congenial burly man sporting a tuft of chest hair and a Trumpian head thatch. In the foyer, the poster for his program features a younger Montes, hair dyed black, arms raised in attack, like Wolf Man, mid-transformation. I asked him about pandering to fear and morbid fascination, turning tragedy into pornography.
INTERPRETER/WAGNER MONTES: I talk about any crime, denounce any person. I avoid reports and images that can be very shocking, mostly because I have lots of teenage viewers. But against banditos, I love them buried.
BOB GARFIELD: Does not Alert City and similar crime shows create an “us against them” mentality that just perpetuates some of Brazil's ugliest history and the marginalization of whole classes of Brazilians?
INTERPRETER/WAGNER MONTES: No, on the contrary. I'm the one who advocates for the working class since the beginning of my career. I've always defended the people. I'm very afraid of stray bullets because stray bullets always end up hitting innocent people.
BOB GARFIELD: You were elected to the Rio de Janeiro State Congress based on your law and order politics. Is there no conflict of interest between being a member of the media, talking about crime, and being a politician, talking about crime?
INTERPRETER/WAGNER MONTES: No, no, I think one complements the other. I make denunciations about what needs to be done in the area of policing. The fights I pick on television are the same ones I pick here in government.
BOB GARFIELD: Where is the biggest crime problem? Is it in the favelas?
INTERPRETER/WAGNER MONTES: It’s everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD: Deputy, should people come to Rio to the Olympics? Are they safe?
INTERPRETER FOR WAGNER MONTES: You can come, you can come. Rio de Janeiro will be ready to receive all the tourists who come here.
[SOUND OF MOTORCYCLE TAXI]
BOB GARFIELD: This is Rio’s largest favela, Rocinha. Winding up a steep Rio hill, the block homes here are stacked crazy quilt, like random piles of Lego blocks. Motorcycle taxis create the soundtrack for this bustling retail corridor, featuring both shabby storefronts and handsome boutiques - opticians, a CrossFit gym, a Subway restaurant, a sushi bar and, yikes, a 24-hour funeral home.
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It’s not Beverly Hills, but it isn’t a shantytown, either. The buildings are made of masonry and reinforced concrete, the homes have electricity and plumbing. And, while favelas were settled by squatters beginning a century ago, the 1988 Constitution awarded land-use rights to most residents. At every corner, military police, no doubt reassuring to the tourists taking in a paid van or Jeep “slum tour” - the promoter’s words, not ours.
Less comfortable are the residents, who live with the reality of these so-called “pacification troops.”
Most notoriously, in 2013 a brick layer named Amarildo de Souza was tortured and murdered by police here, who claimed, with no evidence they've ever produced, he was a suspect.
MAN: Onde está Amarildo or where is Amarildo is the question that residents of Rocinha and many other Brazilians want answered.
BOB GARFIELD: Souza’s fate is uncommon, mainly by being well known outside of Rocinha. Michel Silva is a founder of a Rocinha community newspaper, Fala Roça. As far as the mainstream media are concerned, he says –
INTERPRETER FOR MICHEL SILVA: If you live here, you’re a drug trafficker.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re a citizen who’s just been shot by the police.
INTERPRETER/MICHEL SILVA: Suspected drug trafficker. You don't have a name, you don't have an identity. You’re a suspect.
BOB GARFIELD: How many people have you shot today?
INTERPRETER/MICHEL SILVA: [LAUGHS] I shot the government, by writing about them.
[SOUND OF DOG BARKING]
BOB GARFIELD: That was Rocinha. In Maré, the scene is strikingly different. Here also the favela streets are patrolled by men brandishing assault rifles and strapped with Glocks, but they’re not the police. They are the narcos, who stake out territory while militia extortionists run protection rackets in a vacuum of law and order.
Alana and I are warned by our fixer Catherine not to display our microphone and definitely not to stare. So, with our gear hidden in Alana's bag, we casually stroll through a neighborhood yawning itself awake a little past 9 am.
Here we met Thais Cavalcante, a journalism student and a founder of O Cidadao (The Citizen), a community newspaper for, by and about the 130,000 residents of Maré. In 2014, when Maré was occupied by military police for the World Cup, Thais’s reporting was used by outside news organizations who feared to send reporters in. She is 22. She looks 16 - tall, slender and imperturbable, as she strides in flip-flops up the hill to the community center that is The Citizen’s office.
Alana, would you please [LAUGHS] try to explain the poignancy of this meeting?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: It was a very tense day, to begin with, because the cops had been hunting this drug trafficker named Fat Family. He had escaped police custody. And this favela and others were flooded, again, with police. But the thing is, Thais doesn’t speak much English and we don't often run long Q&As on the show in another language, but we don't often get to hear from people like Thais. So bear with us. This begins with her describing The Citizen.
INTERPRETER FOR THAIS CAVALCANTE: We organize our editorial line around the visions and perspectives that people who live here have about their own life. Everything is included. We have a section of the newspaper about memory, we have a profile section. A theme is citizenship, a theme is culture. But we’re not a newspaper in which everything is great. We are a partial newspaper. We have a side. We’re in favor of a free and democratic media. We’re also in favor of life, of people being alive. And if something happens here that makes us uncomfortable, we’re going to talk about it. We do cover public security and security issues here, but we have to cover it in a delicate way because we live here and so, we can’t say just anything. Sometimes, it could put our safety in danger.
BOB GARFIELD: Who is the law here?
INTERPRETER/THAIS CAVALCANTE: There are two drug trafficking factions - these are the powers - the Army, which was present last year and the year before, the militia, which is the power that you’re not allowed to talk much about, but it’s in one part of Maré. And so, we live with various armed groups who struggle for control. Maré is very big. The police’s attempts to control here aren’t working and result in death and difficulty. There are shootouts and then streets close, schools close, businesses close. You can’t move from one place to another. Sometimes the police do invasions here in the community and usually, when the police do that, it doesn’t go well.
BOB GARFIELD: What does TV tell Maré about itself?
INTERPRETER/THAIS CAVALCANTE: It shows us as dirty people, uneducated people. The problem is coverage that talks as if violence is the only thing that happens here. People know that this stuff goes on. I think it’s more interesting to cover other things that happen here and be honest and mention the fact that there is violence, there are shootouts. It’s important to say not just a shootout happened but what’s the consequence? The stores close, the schools close.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so let, let me just make sure I understand. If City Alert or Globo or any foreign press comes in and paints the favela as a one-dimensional place where it’s just a videogame, a violent videogame and nothing else, it's not just that you roll your eyes and say, oh, there they go again. This is really an existential threat for you, right, because these reports become the pretext for those who would just take away your very way of life? Is that the issue?
INTERPRETER/THAIS CAVALCANTE: Yes. The standard coverage is used to affirm certain policies of the state towards us. Talking about police operations, for example, we are described in many headlines in mainstream media as “suspects.” The police entered, there was a police operation. The suspect was dead. He’s always a young black guy from a favela, and all that’s said about him is that he died because he was a suspect. There is no follow-up coverage of what crime he was a suspect of.
BOB GARFIELD: Thais, thank you very much.
THAIS CAVALCANTE: Thank you.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: So before Bob and I sat down, Thais wanted us to know something.
INTERPRETER/THAIS CAVALCANTE: Before I was part of this newspaper, I would lie to other people and say that I didn’t live in Maré. I was ashamed of living in a favela. But then I realized when I started to be part of the newspaper, that I didn’t have to let TV tell me what to think and what to feel. Learning community journalism meant learning about my favela and who I am. And this communication is our voice.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The very next day after we spoke with Thais, she posted this to Facebook: “Police operation in Maré, midday three people killed, two people wounded, seven suspects. Schools closed, more than 5,000 children without classes. Daycare closed. Public health centers closed.”
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BOB GARFIELD: Why did we go to Brazil? Well, partly to gawk. It’s obviously a train wreck. But also, coming from one society ridden by polarization and unrest, here was this opportunity to witness, and maybe learn from, a younger democracy in the crucible. What does crisis tell a society about itself? What happens when a nation is forced by ugly circumstance to question its own values, its self-image, its myths? Tainted political money, media echo chambers, entrenched racism, the particulars are all too familiar. What’s instructive is watching Brazil coming to terms with the lies it has told itself, the prerequisite maybe to finally fulfilling its elusive destiny.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. This episode of On the Media was produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, with the help of Brazilian Field Producer Catherine Osborn. Special thanks for the generous assistance of ABRAJI, the association for investigative journalism in Brazil. Thanks also to Isabel Cristo and Emma Stelter. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Jim Schachter is WNYC's vice president for news.
Our theme music is by the group Come With Me in Rio de Janeiro. And the show was edited – by Brooke, who will be back next week. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.