On October 20, 2010, just a few days before Dilma Rousseff was reelected to serve a second term as president of Brazil, newscasts focused on reports that opposing candidate José Serra had interrupted his campaign to undergo medical examination after supposedly being attacked by members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) during a rally in Rio de Janeiro. In much of the major media and on social networks, it was claimed that the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate had been hit by a heavy object. In fact, as documented by at least five TV cameras, Serra had been hit by a harmless ball of crumpled paper.
Earlier this year, on July 30, an attack at the Lula Institute in Sao Paulo (named for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also from the PT) involving a homemade explosive was reported as an “incident” of no major consequence. Merval Pereira, a columnist for O Globo, denounced the attempt by petistas (members or supporters of the PT) and Lula’s supporters to transform the event into a “terrorist act,” pointing out that “it only made a small hole in the door.” Ricardo Noblat, also a columnist at O Globo, raised the question of whether the throwing of the explosive wasn’t a “setup to allow Lula to pose as a victim.” Reinaldo Azevedo, in turn, on his blog for Veja magazine – one of Brazil’s most influential publications — accused petistas of wanting to exploit the bomb attack in order to crack down on opposition demonstrations scheduled for August 16 (no crackdown of any kind occurred).
Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples of bias in the Brazilian news media. Brazil’s large media outlets present themselves as bulwarks of democracy when in reality they work to guarantee that a society of exclusion and elitism remains in place. O Globo, for example, was one of the earliest supporters of the military coup d’état in Brazil, and it was only in August 2013 that a public retraction from the newspaper= recognized that “the editorial support for the 1964 coup was an error.”
Until the PT won the presidency, the historic social exclusion of certain sectors of the population had never been countered with efficient public policies. Years of per capita income stagnation, neoliberal economic policies and high income concentration exacerbated a large social gap, as shown by high levels of poverty and illiteracy. The result was that a significant portion of the population had no access to social rights guaranteed under the Constitution (healthcare, education, and complete political participation). The PT’s national project was based on social inclusion and the redistribution of income for millions of people who previously had not had the opportunity to fully exercise their citizenship. From the moment the PT began to gain national relevance in Brazilian politics in the 1980s, the country’s traditional media, led by a few families, made one of its main objectives preventing that project from fully developing.
The popularity of the Lula government, and the eventual failure of the opposition to present an acceptable alternative for the majority of the population, opened the way for the media to become one of the political actors with the greatest relevance on the national scene. Recently, Dilma Rousseff’s narrow victory in the 2014 presidential elections rekindled the hopes of Brazil’s big media outlets.
There is an ongoing political crisis in Brazil, and the media has been playing a central role both in the consolidation and the deepening of this crisis. Exacerbating political tensions, the traditional press seeks to consolidate a narrative in public opinion where the country is going through a deep institutional and economic crisis that would justify, in the end, the premature end of Dilma Rousseff’s mandate, the impossibility of a petista succession, and the annihilation of the current social project.
Corruption scandals and economic deceleration are the most exploited topics, yet personal attacks against President Dilma, former President Lula and other party leaders are easily found in editorials and op-ed sections. A breakdown of the coalition political model adopted during the PT years, the increasing hostility of the main allied party of the government—PMDB—and the subversive impulse of the PSDB, the main opposition party, ignite passions, and feed further media distortions.
The coverage given to Operation Carwash (Operação Lava Jato), the name given to the investigation conducted by the Federal Police and the Federal Public Ministry that uncovered a large money laundering and funneling scheme involving the state oil company, Petrobras, and various enterprises and politicians, is perhaps one of the best examples of Brazilian media bias. Starting in March 2014, daily newscasts around the country focused on investigations into alleged involvement of PT politicians in the scandal – at the same time minimizing or even omitting involvement of politicians from the PSDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the Progressive Party (PP) and other parties.
O Estado de S. Paulo, a prominent newspaper, went so far as to change a headline on its site to shift focus from the national president of the PSDB, Aécio Neves’s, involvement in the siphoning off of resources from the Furnas Hydroelectric Project, as uncovered in the Carwash investigation. The headline accompanying the article read: “In Carwash, [Albert Youssef, a money changer and one of the principal operators of the scheme] says Aécio received money funneled away from Furnas,” but was later transformed into “[Chief prosecutor Rodrigo] Janot asks to table [that is, remove from consideration] the investigation against Aécio, cited by Youssef.” A February 6, 2015 editorial from the same newspaper assures that the “assault on Petrobras” results from “the effects of a cold and boldly elaborated strategy of consolidation of the political hegemony” of the Workers’ Party.
Despite whistleblowers having stated a day earlier that the siphoning off of money from the oil company went back to at least 1997—that is, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB) was still president—O Estado de S. Paulo never retracted the accusation in its editorial, and repeatedly distorted the facts to convince its readers that the PT is responsible for the “invention” of corruption in Brazil.
O Globo’s editorial line follows a similar approach. A piece published on March 12, 2015 describes “the corruption scheme created in the country’s largest state company with the blessing of lulopetismo, in conjunction with allies from the PMDB and the PP,” allegedly revealed through the deposition of a former manager of the oil company, Pedro Barroso before a congressional investigating commission on Petrobras in the Chamber of Deputies. Even though the newspaper recognizes that there was embezzlement at the state company during various governments, including the tucano (PSDB) governments, the editorial proclaims that this will not “detract from lulopetismo being the first in making a wide and well-organized assault upon the state company” – despite the fact that among the approximately 50 politicians subpoenaed so far, only eight are petistas, while 31 are cadres of the PP (the PP’s involvement was described in Youseff’s depositions).
The arrest of José Dirceu added fuel to the fire. A historic cadre of the PT, Dirceu was arrested based on declarations from others arrested under Operation Carwash who cut deals with authorities to provide information in exchange for reduced sentences. Proof of his involvement is yet to be presented. His arrest occurred the morning of August 3, 2015, and was widely covered on the front pages of newspapers, with special mentions during newscasts, and on news sites, and they were unanimous in their judgment: The Federal Police had finally gotten to the heart of corruption in Petrobras. More importantly, they will eventually get Lula, the stories insinuated.
O Globo’s front page on August 4, 2015 highlighted a cartoon by Chico Caruso in which José Dirceu is seen behind bars whispering into a smartphone, with a picture of Lula stamped on it, the title of a famous Brazilian song by Rita Lee, “Now, only you are missing.” Merval Pereira, a columnist at O Globoasked, the same day, if the money funneling scheme’s “chain of command stopped with Dirceu.” While recalling that the political scenario today differs from that in which previous scandals took place, Merval affirmed that “it is already possible to ask and discuss whether Lula will be arrested.”
Igor Gielow, who writes for Folha de S. Paulo, makes it very clear that José Dirceu’s arrest once again puts the PT under the spotlight of the investigation (and of the media), exactly at a moment when the focus of the Petrobras scandal seemed to be moving toward the involvement of leaders of the PMDB, like Eduardo Cunha and Renan Calheiros, the presidents of the Senate and of the Chamber of Deputies, respectively.
During the little more than 500 days that Operation Carwash has been going on, there has not been one day in which newspapers have not been filled with stories related to the case. The most careful reader should question why other investigations receive little or no attention from the major media. Take for example, the so-called “mensalão tucano.” Considered the embryo of the “mensalão petista” (a bribe scheme for buying political support in Congress for which José Dirceu and José Genoíno, another important petista cadre, were jailed in 2012), it consisted of channeling more than US$ 3.9 million from the coffers of public companies in Minas Gerais in order to finance the failed campaign of then state governor Eduardo Azeredo, in 1998.
Despite investigations into the case having begun more than ten years ago, and the judicial process more than five years ago, the mensalão tucano has not led to anyone being sentenced, and some of the accused, such as Aécio Neves and Antonio Anastasia (both occupying seats in the Senate), still await judgment while retaining their high-level positions —far from the media’s scrutiny.
The media war on the government and on the petista national plan has been bearing fruit. A poll taken by Ibope in May of this year shows that 48 percent of those interviewed are pessimistic about the country’s future. Yet the poll also revealed information that went widely unreported: 41 percent of those interviewed said they believe the media’s portrayal of the country’s economic situation is overly negative. Only 28 percent disagreed with that sentiment.
Perhaps this is a sign that the Brazilian public is wising up to the systematic bias found in their country’s major media.
Aline Cristiane Piva is a political analyst at the Brazil-based communications group Entrelinhas, and a specialist in international relations at the University of Brasília and in international law at the University of Londrina.