Whatever the eventual fate of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff – resignation, impeachment or even imprisonment – it’s clear that the forces that are overwhelming her presidency owe a great deal to the country’s media. In fact, it would be true to say that the media has been one of the prime movers in the crisis now engulfing the 69-year-old leader.
Rousseff, whose government has been beset by allegations of corruption, has been deserted by the biggest party in the Brazilian congress, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB). In a stroke, this has increased the prospect of her being impeached and removed from office within weeks.
Her predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, recently told reporters that Rousseff was facing what he called a “coup” mounted by her opponents with the enthusiastic connivance of the media.
For a leader to govern, they cannot be preoccupied with day-to-day survival. It’s bloodshed every single day. [By] a part of the Brazilian media [that] helps to worsen the environment of hatred on the streets of this country.
Since her re-election in 2014 with a majority of 52% to 48%, Rousseff’s presidency has been severely weakened by an anti-Workers’ Party (PT) agenda pushed by sectors of the media in alliance with some conservative judges and opposition parties.
Brazil’s media has set up federal judge, Sergio Moro, as a sort of avenging angel tasked with bringing down Rousseff and her government. Moro has overseen the two-year “Car Wash” investigation into corruption at the state oil firm Petrobras. The Car Wash investigations have undoubtedly been very important for the country – and have been possible thanks to the government’s strengthening of the autonomy of the federal police and the implementation of anti-corruption measures in the last few years.
But Moro has himself been criticised for not targeting opposition leaders involved in corruption allegations, for seeking media fame, and for allowing himself to emerge as a sort of “right wing” hero among sectors of the population disillusioned with the democratic process and Brazilian politicians in general.
While Rousseff herself has not been implicated in the Car Wash probe, the investigation has pointed the finger at several high ranking PT members as well as senior politicians from other parties. These include the PMDP which has now quit the ruling coalition in a move likely to hasten impeachment proceedings against the president.
The possibility of such a “soft coup” occurring in the next few months has become more likely. Although there are disputes over the terminology “coup”, the fact of the matter is that the impeachment process is seen as flawed and highly political.
It is presided over by Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house of Congress, who is himself formally accused of corruption and of owning foreign offshore accounts with money stolen from Petrobras, alongside another 37 MPs also accused of corruption and members of the impeachment commission. So, far from strengthening institutional processes, there is a real risk of setting the clock back on democracy and impeding the country’s economic recovery.
While Rousseff has not been personally caught up in any of the series of scandals besetting Brazil’s political class, she’s been accused instead of incompetence in dealing with corruption, as well as mismanagement of the economy – and her popularity has slumped. But coverage of the scandals has become highly politicised and partisan, something that has deepened social divisions in Brazil and has weakened its fragile hold on democracy.
The media seems to have one dominant narrative, which is repeated to the point of exhaustion: the moral crusade against corruption which aligns parts of the opposition with the “good society”. “Petista” – which refers to the Worker’s Party (PT) – has somehow become a pejorative synonym for corrupt, or “in favour of corruption”.
Brazilians are subjected to this simplistic good guy/bad guy narrative on a 24-hour basis – it is rolled out to justify every accusation against any member of PT, when other politicians across the breadth of the political spectrum have been equally, if not more, implicated in corruption accusations.
With few exceptions, media narratives over the past few years have done little to explain to citizens the power relations and political interests implicated in the crisis – with organisations such as Globo TV being accused of cheerleading instead the anti-government rallies.
Coverage of Rousseff has been pretty unpleasant from the start – the first female president of the country, was called all sorts of nasty names by politicians as well as by mainstream journalists on social media. Some even went as far as to suggest that she had committed suicide. Meanwhile, at legitimate anti-government protests, the voices of concerned citizens have been drowned out by small but very loud extreme right wing groups, including people doing Nazi salutes and simulating the killing of homeless people and blacks. The mainstream press calls this “freedom of speech”.
Many academics and journalists argue that sectors of the media have had a role in stimulating hate, acting irresponsibly and creating divisions in society. This is seen as as a consequence of the failure of media reform in Brazil, a country which has a highly concentrated media landscape where very few companies dominate public debate and the media environment has been compared to Fox News being joined by all other mainstream US broadcasters in going after a president they don’t like.
Brazil was once the darling of the international community for having survived two decades of right-wing military dictatorship and for building a modern pluralistic society with a strong economy that was rightly part of the surging BRICS block of economic tigers. But as the economy falters and the country’s politics polarises into violently opposing camps, the future of democracy in Brazil is at risk. These are dangerous times for Brazil.