Worker’s Party (PT) Candidate, Dilma Rousseff, will be the first woman president in Brazilian history. She was elected into office this Sunday, October 31st, with just over 56 percent of the votes, defeating conservative candidate José Serra by twelve points. In her victory speech Dilma called for unity and thanked outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Dilma supporters took to the streets, filling Paulista Avenue in São Paulo. But victory was not easy. The second-round campaign debate centered on abortion, religion, scandals, and a mainstream media deliberately set on defeating the left-wing front-runner.
“The electoral debate this year wasn’t what we wanted it to be, a debate over the proposals for the country, for development, and social inclusion,” said Celso Woyciechowski, President of Brazil’s largest worker’s federation, the CUT, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
“Unfortunately, the debate became polarized around issues that are important, but aren’t the priority in terms of the proposals for the country. Especially when the candidate José Serra tried to focus on issues that divide society, like abortion, like religion,” said Celso.
These issues rose to prominence in the debate a month ago, as both presidential candidates sought to attract evangelical voters who supported Green Party candidate Marina Silva in the first round, in large part responsible for her remarkable 20% of the vote. Serra staunchly opposed abortion, based on what he called his “Christian values.”
Worker’s Party candidate Dilma Rousseff came out softer on the issue, saying she supports abortion in extreme cases. Many believe she was pressured away from a more progressive stance by the electoral debate and the Catholic Church.
According to the Brazilian Statistics Institute, IBOPE, some 70% of the Brazilian population is against abortion, but many Brazilians say the issue has no place in the campaign.
“It’s cowardly to take this to electoral debate. They’ve never brought this up with a serious democratic discussion where everyone can express themselves, especially the victims. Instead, they bring it up in the heat of the electoral moment to take down their adversary anti-democratically,” says Cristóvão Feil, a sociologist and the editor of the popular 4-year-old blog, Dario Gauche.
The mainstream media picked up on the issue and widely criticized Dilma’s soft position, weakening her lead in the polls.
On October 10, O Globo, the newspaper for Brazil’s largest media chain, led with the headline: “Illegal Abortion Kills One Woman Every Two Days.” Not until the end of the article on one of the back pages does the article mention that the majority of these deaths come to poor women who have no other option but to submit to dangerous procedures in clandestine clinics – an issue that could be resolved by treating abortion as a public health issue as many have called for, including president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Maria José Rosado Nunes, coordinator of the NGO Catholics for the Right to Decide (1).
Twelve pages into the same paper, another large headline reads: “Lula Admits: The Dispute Has Become More Difficult.” This is followed by an equally large article entitled: “State Leaders will be the Triumph of Serra.” Article after article of O Globo revealed a clear slant in favor of conservative candidate, José Serra.
“The media are pretty much campaigning for candidate [Serra],” said Jefferson Pinheiro this week, a member of the six-year-old local media collective, Catarse, in Porto Alegre.
“Many times they completely ignore journalistic ethics, they openly manipulate, they omit information. And although we expected this from these media, which is already disheartening, in these elections especially they crossed every line.”
The media widely covered José Serra’s wife, Monica, who accused Dilma of being in favor of “killing babies” while campaigning with her husband’s vice-presidential candidate, Índio da Costa (DEM), in the state of Rio de Janeiro in September.(2) Ironically, Monica inadvertently brought the media’s heyday with the abortion issue to an abrupt end in mid October, when it was leaked that she herself had an abortion. (3)
Just as it seemed the candidates could get down to a real debate, news broke on October 21st that José Serra had been hit by a projectile while campaigning in Rio de Janeiro. Serra took the afternoon off and blamed violent Dilma supporters. The Rio’s TV network Globo quickly edited a video showing the attack. It turned out that the object was a paper ball. Bloggers debunked the media mock-up. Even employees at Globo’s São Paulo office expressed their embarrassment at being affiliated with the production.
In the print media, the Folha de S. Paulo has been exposed for publishing fabricated Dilma Rousseff police reports, and other papers have printed stories of her alleged involvement in kidnappings while fighting against the Brazilian dictatorship.
Throughout the campaign, the right-wing magazine Veja published weekly stories linking Dilma to corruption scandals and painting her party as a power-hungry beast.
“The cover stories of the magazine Veja, for example, one after the next are criminal. What they are doing in fact does border on criminal, because they are disinformation, information out of context, lies many times, and they without a doubt will influence the vote of many people,” says Pinheiro.
Shortly before this year’s first round of the elections, members of Brazil’s social movements, unions, and independent media protested in São Paulo against what they called the ongoing media coup. Outgoing president Lula reiterated last week that the Brazilian media is in the hands of 9-10 families.
Brazil has a long history of media manipulations. The 20 year-long dictatorship (1964-1984) was closely tied to Brazil’s corporate media. Some analysts speculate that president Lula lost his first bid at the Presidential seat in 1989 because of manipulative coverage by the Globo Television Network. The 1993 British documentary, Beyond Citizen Kane, by Simon Hartog highlights the scathing role of the Rede Globo and its powerful owner Roberto Marinho.
“In Brazil, we don’t have a monopoly, what we have is an oligopoly,” says Pinheiro. “More than 90% of all of the information, news and journalism that is produced in Brazil is in the hands of six large groups, which are groups of businessmen. As we know across the planet, communication in the hands of businessmen serves their economic and political interests in the defense of their social class, which has the economic power.”
The three largest conglomerates are Abril, Globo and Band. Abril controls the Brazilian editorial market and also owns MTV Brasil. Seven of the ten most read magazines in the country are owned by Abril, including Veja which is the weekly magazine with the largest circulation in the world outside of the United States.
Globo has the largest television network in the country, controlling 340 local outlets and affiliates across Brazil. Band, or the Bandeirantes Communication Group leads with sporting coverage leader with 144 local outlets and 22 affiliates.
But despite the history of media spin, grassroots analysts say this year’s media coverage is even worst than normal.
“It was a more articulated campaign between Serra’s party and the corporate media, using techniques from elections in the United States with Sarah Palin,” says Claudia Cardoso, a longtime media activist and regional coordinator for the national communication congress. “They were organized. Newspaper, radio and TV representatives met in March of this year and they organized for this campaign. That is what is most concerning.”
In an excellent analysis of the media bias during the campaign, journalist Alexandre Haubrich wrote in his blog, JornalismoB, on October 20th:
“In this campaign, we see the dominant press organizing itself against the Lula government and the candidacy of Dilma Rousseff, principally through three of its newspapers (Folha de S. Paulo, Estadão and O Globo), two magazines (Veja and Época) and one television channel (TV Globo). Through constant accusations in articles and direct attacks in editorials, the newspapers fulfill the powerful role of depoliticizing the campaign, and offering issues to the debate that have little or nothing to do with larger proposals for the country.”
According to Cardoso, the Brazilian mainstream media is able to get away with things they wouldn’t be able to elsewhere because media content and ownership are completely deregulated. Brazil has no public regulatory committee like the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The media collective, Intervozes, says that even if the FCC’s attempted deregulation on media consolidation had passed in 2004, it would have left the United States with stronger laws than Brazil. (5)
“When you have media that runs wild, that’s not regulated, and there is no way for society to participate in changing the way they function, they can do what they want. And that’s the problem, the lack of regulation,” says Cardoso.
This is one of the issues that she hopes Dilma will tackle once in office. But she will have a long road ahead. Hundreds of Brazilian politicians across the country are either partners or directors of mainstream media. Dozens of senators and congressional representatives have deep ties to the corporate media. (6) It’s a strong lobby and a powerful voice.
In September, president Lula criticized the mainstream media for acting “like political parties.” The Brazilian press responded that he was trying to crack down on the freedom of speech. The President of the Inter-American Press Agency (IAPA), Alejandro Aguirre, called Lula’s comments “dangerous.”
“We are very concerned with the situation in Brazil. In other statements we have expressed this, but we are hopeful that the person who succeeds Mr. Lula da Silva as president will be respectful of civil and human rights, and of freedom of expression as the cornerstone of democracy,” Aguirre told Globo. (7) The fact that the IAPA has its own historic ties to the “oligopoly” and Latin America’s former dictatorships was ignored. (8)
There is a growing media democracy movement in Brazil. Last December 1500 representatives of Brazil’s independent and community media met for the country’s first National Communication Congress. The goal was to take the first steps towards something like the new media law Argentina passed last year.
The Argentine law set aside two-thirds of the radio and TV spectrum for noncommercial stations, and required channels to use more Argentine content. It also forced the country’s leading media company, Grupo Clarin, to sell off many of its holdings. (9)
But Brazil still has a long way to go. President Lula didn’t present any of the proposals from the Communications Congress to Brazil’s legislative branches for approval. Any president to do so would be quickly lambasted by an antagonistic press.
“Even if Dilma wins she won’t be able to touch the media model,” says Cardoso, who adds that the saving grace is the Internet.
During the electoral campaign “blogs, websites, and twitter have helped to organize the streets,” she says. One of the major reasons why “so many things were debunked,” and why she was able to pull off the resounding victory on Sunday.
It also doesn’t hurt that Dilma’s most important supporter, outgoing president Lula, currently has an approval rating over 80%. Dilma will take office on January 1st. She has promised to continue Lula’s policies.
After victories last month in both the congress and senate, Dilma’s political coalition has a solid legislative majority. This is the first time in democratic Brazil that a political coalition has held such a substantial majority in both the executive and legislative branches.
Given her double victory – at the polls and over the mainstream media’s campaign against her candidacy – Dilma and her supporters have reason to celebrate.
(1) O aborto e as eleições presidenciais, Carta Capital, September 30, 2010
(4) Donos da Mídia, http://donosdamidia.com.br/levantamento/politicos
Michael Fox is a freelance journalist, reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Brazil. This article appeared originally in Americas Program. He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks: Voices from the Grassroots, and co-director of Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas. His work can be found at www.blendingthelines.com.