The polarized Brazilian presidential election, which ended in October, was a contest characterized by disinformation and attacks on the press. This “war on truth” was central to Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power. The president-elect, who takes office on Jan. 1, has repeatedly called mainstream media outlets “fake news,” taking a page from Donald Trump’s book and, more recently, went as far as to say that popular power no longer needs the intermediation of reporters—an indication that he intends to emulate Trump’s ubiquitous presence on social media.
In Brazil’s case, the “war” was often physical. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism tracked more than 150 cases of violence targeting reporters, including threats against a Folha de S.Paulo reporter who exposed a pro-Bolsonaro campaign to spread fake news via WhatsApp and was recently featured as one of Time magazine’s “People of The Year.”
In the final days before Bolsonaro’s inauguration, the Brazilian media has been preparing for what seems likely to be at least four years of a contentious relationship with the future administration. And independent journalists are setting up a host of new efforts to safeguard democracy and press freedom. To cover what will happen to Brazil in 2019, the initiatives aim to regain not only financial support, but the public’s eroded trust.
“The Brazilian press didn’t listen to the public and failed to identify the swing towards the far right,” Sílvia Lisboa, an editor at the Intercept Brasil and a researcher, said, attributing it to elitism and lack of diversity in newsrooms. “The loss of credibility in journalism is a result of a widespread distrust of democratic institutions.”
According to a Datafolha survey in June assessing Brazilian’s perception of the country’s institutions, 45 percent of interviewees said they have little trust in the media and 37 percent said they don’t trust it at all.
Lisboa says the press will have to respond to an increasing demand for autonomy and transparency in the coming years. That scenario, she says, places outlets financed by nonprofits and the public at an advantage, since they are already seen as standing outside the country’s mainstream institutions.
A total of 172 journalism projects in Brazil rely on the first and largest crowdfunding platform in the country, Catarse. Founded almost eight years ago, Catarse has helped raise and distribute roughly $650,000 from 26,000 supporters. According to Rodrigo Machado, the company’s CEO and co-founder, Catarse saw a 33 percent increase in the number of subscriptions to independent journalism outlets on the platform in October—the month of the election— compared with the previous month.
Leading up to the elections, the Intercept Brasil, which was launched in 2016 and is associated with the American site co-edited by Brazil-based American journalist Glenn Greenwald, had one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in the history of independent journalism in the country, managing to reach 135 percent of its established goal.
Machado interpreted these numbers as a good indication of the potential of his most recent endeavor: to create a collectively financed fund for the promotion of independent journalism in Brazil. The project, called Multidão, or Crowd, was launched in November and will be open for contributions in early 2019. By inverting the usual crowdfunding logic of looking for creators and projects to be supported, Multidão wants to begin with the supporters and then search out projects worthy of funding.
“It comes as a response to the idea that journalism doesn’t play a social role, that it’s partisan all the time and ideologically compromised,” Machado said. He says the aim is not to be adversarial to the new president but simply to imbue reporting with credibility. “We want to act to reduce the possibility that strategies like fake news and the discrediting of the media will thrive in the future.”
Some efforts along these lines had already begun throughout the campaign. During the elections, the independent left-wing digital newspaper Brasil 247 delivered the first voting poll financed by the public. The initiative, founder Leonardo Attuch says, came from a request from readers, who were skeptical of the traditional polling institutes, some of which are owned by large media groups. In a matter of four days, it managed to raise more than $25,000 from 2,800 people through crowdfunding.
Now, Brasil 247 hopes that same audience will embrace a brand-new ongoing campaign to support the work of the Journalists for Democracy, a group of a dozen experienced journalists who have held leadership positions in major newsrooms in the country and now use social media or personal blogs to distribute their content.
Having started his career during the military dictatorship in the 1960s, Ricardo Kotscho—one of the members of the Journalists for Democracy and the author of 19 books—was until just recently a political commentator for Record, a media company owned by evangelical leader Edir Macedo. But when the outlet and its leadership grew closer to Bolsonaro during the campaign, Kotscho was fired. He says he fears others who “don’t adapt to the new times” might have the same fate.
“The opposition has disappeared in Brazil, it’s hibernating,” Kotscho said. “Media companies that are critical to the government are afraid of retaliation or to lose advertisers and my colleagues on television are walking on eggshells when talking about Bolsonaro.”
The first nonprofit investigative journalism agency in Brazil, Agência Pública has announced that for the next four years it will focus exclusively on investigations, hiring a full-time senior correspondent to cover the legislative and the executive branches from the capital.
“The message is: In a time when the journalism we do becomes even more relevant, our decision is to do more,” Natália Viana, co-founder of Agência Pública, said. “We’re not going to retract but work harder.” That also means, Viana believes, preparing for what she calls virtual lynching and attacks on basic human rights, the focus of the agency’s coverage, but without playing into the new president’s call for war.
“Politicians with authoritarian tendencies will try to say that there is a war if journalists are investigating them,” Viana said. “A ruler who comes to power wants to stay in power. The press publishes facts. Equalizing both is a disservice.”
Nonetheless, for many Brazilian journalists, the election result felt like a personal blow. At the digital feminist magazine AzMina, part of the newsroom felt defeated and scared that the new president’s misogynist and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric might presage an actual rollback of rights—in the past, Bolsonaro has voted against legislation imposing harsher sentences for gender-motivated homicides and has sponsored a bill that would revoke provisions for rape victims in the health care system.
Co-founder Carolina Oms has started to plan for the year ahead. Besides raising the targeted monthly contribution of its ongoing crowdfunding campaing, the magazine, born in 2015, intends to strengthen the coverage of niche topics important to its core audience, including sexuality and gender identity, all the while trying to expand the dialogue with a broader public. Lately, AzMina has published stories about the women in Congress who will soon form the opposition to Bolsonaro and the effects of the elections, particularly on women and minorities.
“The good thing about this model is that it doesn’t demand anything in return except for good journalism,” Oms said. In order to support that work, the editors have launched an advertising campaign, asking readers: “We know that Brazil forces you to drink, but how about having two beers less every month and subscribing to AzMina?”