By Gian Spina
The billion-dollar corruption scandal involving politicians and the oil corporation Petrobras may be reaching its climax. In the past few years, Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot has been investigating Brazilian politicians. His investigations into politicians are challenging the autonomy and impunity of Brazil’s top officials, as conceived by President Dilma Rousseff. Janot is a key player in this scandal, as he sends names of the politicians who should be investigated to the media darling Sérgio Moro, the federal judge who was in charge of the Car Wash investigation. This corruption scandal appears never-ending, and it touches not only the Workers’ Party, but also many others. The symbolic aspects of the investigations call into question how much the judiciary is practicing politics rather than justice and how tendentious the media has been.
It would be a mistake to claim to know for certain what is happening in Brazil right now. The complexity of the situation, the way developments are handled, and the way certain events are erased make it very difficult to take a clear position. The mass media in Brazil, however, is very partial. The mainstream media is concentrated in the hands of a few families, which all have goals and interests aligned with the opposition party. The reasons for such alignment are not completely clear, but Brazilian media has a history of supporting anti-government actors, such as in the 1964 coup d’etat.
For over a year now, the Brazilian media has intensified its anti-government narrative, creating the slogans such as “Brazil in crisis.” Brazil is experiencing both corruption scandals and a deep recession, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the goal of the media’s campaign is to weaken the president and bring about a coup. The media has been intensifying the people’s emotions, inciting anger with insinuations and discredited statements printed in major magazines.
Eduardo Cunha, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, holds a powerful position in Brazilian politics. He is charged with crimes of corruption and having accounts with over $5 million in Switzerland, but is still acting in his role, negotiating the impeachment of the president. It seems like sometimes the press is easy on him because the biggest target—the president—is still in office. The construction of a narrative that will attend the long-awaited coup not only highlights the partiality of the Brazilian press, but also constructs an interpretation drawn out by the dramatic flow of new grandiose information.
There are multiple chronologies and paradigms used to enhance these narratives. One possible starting point is the overture of the World Cup in 2014, when the whole stadium swore at the president in a messianic choral. The event was over-exposed in the media and stories were assembled labeling all that happened in Brazil as “the president’s fault,” from tomato prices to long queues in the subway to corruption. Those were legitimate grievances, since inflation and corruption did happen, but the press used the event at the World Cup as a trigger for a well-articulated story constructing the president as the single enemy. The dominant white upper class was comforted when the possibility of deposing a elected left-wing president became clear, reminiscent of Brazil’s political situation in 1964 when another leftist government was deposed.
After attempts to legalize the coup on the grounds of corruption, misconduct regarding federal accounts, and irregularities on the choice of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as chief of staff, a commission was formed on March 17 to vote whether or not the impeachment should happen.
The possibility that Silva would be judged came up at key symbolic moment. If it happened, it would represent the confirmation of corruption in the executive branch, the imprisonment of one of the most important politicians in Brazilian history, and the victory of the rage-filled dominant class.
The synchronicity of news and developments in the case created a very scary “theater of democracy.” On March 3, Istoé, a major Brazilian magazine whose director was special adviser to the minister of justice and had privileges on documents concerning the Car Wash investigation into a money laundering and corruption scheme, released a denunciation of ex-senator Delcídio Amaral, who is being prosecuted for corruption. In the article, Rousseff and Silva are mentioned and accused of knowing about schemes of corruption. Less than a week later, Silva was forcibly conducted to an interrogation, taken from his home at 6:00 a.m. by armed men. He was accompanied by a vast set of cameras from the media. Many prosecutors have said this conduct was illegal, but the incident received massive press coverage.
Four days later, multiple demonstrations all over Brazil called for a coup—or impeachment, to use the demonstrators’ terminology—and the media coverage was massive, stating that it was the most crowded demonstration in history and a “yell of democracy.” But what we saw that day was a mainly upper class parade filled with antagonistic slogans, such as “Trump wins and saves Brazil,” “military intervention,” and the flags ennobling the prosecutor Sérgio Moro and homophobic and racist politician Jair Bolsonaro. Three days later, Silva accepted the post as the minister of the Civil House, and events became even more complex. That same day, Moro, who is known to have connections with the opposition and the mainstream press, released to the media a telephone conversation in which Rousseff and Silva discuss his acceptance of the position she offered and how it might help protect him against charges. This was a strong trigger; people went to the streets, very angry for obvious reasons but never questioning whether it is legal for a prosecutor to leak a conversation involving the president of their country. There were riots, and the polarization between people for and against a coup had never been so strong. The construction of this narrative, with both proven facts and subjective or false claims, has created a tense and violent atmosphere in which the only possible solution to the unrest is to impeach the president.
On March 18, demonstrations all over Brazil against the coup took place, bringing thousands to the streets. There was very little media coverage. Interestingly, one hour after the demonstration, just when people were returning home, the supreme federal court judge Gilmar Mendes, who is one of the leading opposition forces on the judiciary, suspended Silva’s mandate, alleging that the recently assigned Silva was trying to evade the Supreme Court. Silva’s suspension was widely discussed, but there was very little attention paid to the people in the streets.
The week of March 23, federal police released a list containing names of 200 Brazilian politicians that have received bribes from the country’s major construction company. Some of the news outlets have not published the list, citing “confidentiality and respect to the law.” The same respect was not given when making random accusations against the government.
The complexity of this whole situation can make it difficult to see all sides, but the manner in which top-level government officials have behaved does not justify the politically motivated actions of the judiciary and, principally, the media. We remember historic moments when the press was saying “schluss mit korrupzion” (stop corruption) in the Weimar Republic, the radio was used to incite the Rwandan genocide, or even when, in 1964, the Brazilian communication enterprise Globo facilitated the coup that lead to military dictatorship. The dominant discourse was the media discourse, and the media was thus able to affect the direction of history. In the next month, we will most likely experience a coup in Brazil, the recently achieved human rights advances will be rolled back, and corruption scandals will slowly disappear following the impeachment, suffocated by the breeze of justice from this hypothetic victory.
Gian Spina is a researcher, artist, and professor at the architecture college Escola da Cidade in São Paulo.
[Image by Walter Rego]