Nilson Lage is the pre-eminent journalist in Brazil. In this exclusive interview Lage discusses with Pedro Leal the many problems facing the Brazilian media and their connection to the widening protests in the country.
Nilson Lage, though vastly studied, remains far from a household name for the wider Brazillian public. With five decades working either in the field, in the main newsrooms in Rio de Janeiro – in outlets such as O Globo, Jornal do Brasil and Última Hora – in academia – acting as professor in universities such as Universidade Fluminense, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, and Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (where he acted since 1992 until 2006, when he retired). His texts are used in courses all over the country and quoted in countless thesis, monographs and dissertations. He is a distinguished expert in the field.
Surprisingly then for someone so deeply entrenched in it, he claims the media in Brazil is highly biased; “In Brazil there is an oligopoly of central media companies through which almost all primary journalistic information about national interest subjects flows”, he begins, noting that Globo alone reaches a higher audience than all other TV networks in the country. “This media presents a unanimous opposition to state intervention in the economy, even as a regulator of commercial and productive activities”, he adds, noting that they purport themselves to be “the true opposition”. That puts Globo in direct confrontation with the ruling political party Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in power since 2002 – due in large part to ex-president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva social programs (criticized by the media, regardless of how successful they are, he notes) and anti-globalization discourse.
This opposition in the media to the PT government, he says, is noticeable especially when reporting on the economy. “Although Brazil maintains a low unemployment rate (little above 4%), the menace of unemployment is a constant theme in the press. From the first to the last day of the year, they announce foreboding forecasts and negative numbers (form the GDP to the commercial balance, going through the government cash flow, etc), which are undone when the statistics are published. The catastrophe, then, is pushed to the next year”, he explains. The end result is a newscast that shows a Brazil different from that in which people live.
Lack of professional regulation is another issue that aggravates the problem, as he comments: “There are journalists and journalists. The profession is one of free access and effectively no regulation in Brazil, which particularly displeases me greatly: journalist, specially in “opinion columns”, winds up being anyone that the outlet’s owner decides to call a journalist”. Through this Brazil has had a resurgence of ultra-conservative thinking, expressed through names such as Rodrigo Constatino (from Veja Magazine), Luiz Carlos Prates and Rachel Sheherazade (both from SBT). However, Lage adds: “Those characters, in and of themselves are irrelevant”, gaining importance through the attempts of the liberal left to criticise them.
Even though Brazil has over 80% of its population in urban areas – with over 7% in the São Paulo metropolitan area alone – cities are lacking in services and infrastructure; 44,8% of the cities lack sewer systems, for instance, mobility is often limited, and public health and education services are often subpar. It is against this backdrop that Brazil finds itself amidst a wave of protests since June last year. Erupting due to public transportation fees and the student group Movimento Passe Livre in São Paulo, the situation took a turn for the worse on February 6 this year, when a cinegraphist for Rede Bandeirantes de Televisão, Santiago Andrade, was hit by fireworks launched by protesters in Rio de Janeiro. Andrade died four days later – he was the tenth fatal victim in the protests.
According to Lage, media coverage of the protests is far from neutral – and might in fact be responsible for the escalation of conflict between police and protesters. “The editorial orientation exaggerates the movements and promotes violence both from protestors and the police”, he claims. While editorial control does fail to suppress reality — “during dramatic moments, in which the agenda is not set by the editors” — it still leads to distortions.
The tragedy in São Paulo has also been used for electoral purposes, in underhanded attacks against candidates disliked by the media conglomerates. One such victim was congressman Marcelo Freixo (from left wing party PSOL); immediately after the arrest of the first suspect in Andrade’s death, Globo publicized an unsubstantiated claim of the lawyer of the suspect, that the man who lit the firework “was connected to Freixo”. The claim was redacted the next day.
Part of the protests initial drive, however, comes not from demands for public services, but as a sort of general expression of discontent with how the country is being led; one such case is the protest against the world cup. “The criticism of the expenditure in stadiums is kind of a “war cry” to mobilize the discontent caused in twelve of the largest cities in the country due to numerous, large scale construction works, which give the impression of wastefulness”, he notes. While the population knows the necessity – and often urgency – of those projects, protesters and opinion-makers often reduce them to nothing but the stadiums.
While there has been in Brazilian academic circles some severe criticism of the police conduct in containing the manifestations, Lage notes that the police have been “incompetent, but contained in their violent impulses”. At the same time, it is hard to say what is true about protester led violence, he claims. “Both here, as abroad – specially in Venezuela”, he adds, noting the coverage of the Venezuelan conflict “Reporters talk only to people like them, and who expresses themselves in English – not with those who support Maduro in Venezuela or the ruling party here in Brazil”.