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What the Mainstream Media Gets Wrong When Covering Favelas

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The original text was published in Portuguese by community reporter and activist Thainã de Medeiros* on his Facebook page and republished on Favela 247. Thainã is an organizer of the Coletivo Papo Reto media collective in Complexo do Alemão.

Every time someone interviews me about Coletivo Papo Reto, they ask why it’s important for the favela to have its own media outlets. There are many answers to that question, but this is the first that comes to mind: when the mainstream media tries to write about us, they always screw it up. I thought about all the times the media had screwed me over directly–times they had cited me, someone I know, or a close friend’s initiative. Here’s the list:

  1. Early 2013. My family’s house on Morro do Caracol in Penha collapsed. An article came out saying it had been in an area of risk, and that my family had been receiving social rent from the government for a year. Neither statement was true. To this date there’s been no compensation, no rent assistance.
  1. In 2013 we held the first “farofaço.” This was a direct action we staged with other favela groups. We occupied the beach to challenge the use of that space. Since some South Zone residents were worried we’d leave trash on the beach, we brought plastic bags to carry out our own garbage. As a form of protest, we also brought some garbage the government had left in the favela that week: bullet casings from a police shootout. We stuck the casings to a piece of cardboard and wrote, “We brought the trash they left in our favela.” What did the press have to say the next morning? In the O Dia newspaper it went something like this: Despite their difficult lives, the good-natured favela folks sure know how to smile. In another article (not sure, but I think it was in the newspaper Folha): Black blocs bring bullet casings to the beach in protest.
  1. When the Alemão movie was premiered in Barra da Tijuca, there was a protest here in Alemão (which also has a movie theater). During the protest, the police shot a young man in the foot. What did the papers say? Drug traffickers pay R$200 to protesters in Alemão (Extra newspaper).
  1. Some young people in the favela made their own action film, Traços da Lei (Traces of the Law). They got permission to film and everything. They were using airsoft guns, also with permission. Everything was going fine. They posted pictures on Facebook to announce the opening of their film. Everything was great. Then the TV station Record used their pictures in a story, claiming they were the drug traffickers who had killed a police officer.
  1. At Coletivo Papo Reto we have a series called Retrato Falado (Spoken Portrait) in which we interview residents we consider significant to the favela. One of the first was Luis Moura, also known as Guinha. He was a member of Coletivo Papo Reto, a gay rights activist and an important community leader. A few months later, Guinha was murdered, and his appearance on our program was the last record of him alive. TV broadcasters started circling our material like hawks. They asked to air it on a national network but we refused. Not only was the story about a dear friend, but showing it could have put us at a security risk. They went ahead and ran a story about it anyway, using a clip from our program that completely screwed us over (RJTV, Jornal Nacional TV news).
  1. An Alemão resident sent us a photo of children on the floor of a school, taking cover from a shootout. We were asked to publish it, keeping the source confidential. We decided not to allow anyone to use the image. Ok, we were pretty naive, since it was already online and partly out of our hands. However, we never imagined that a newspaper like Extra would use it without our permission. But they did. They had even asked us, and we had said no. The journalist said, “If I want readers, I’ll go see what else I can find out.” In other words, “Who cares about the people involoved; I want the story. Your life is in danger? Go to hell!” All he cared about was his reputation, and selling papers!
  1. In an attempt to publish something positive about what we do, O Dia ran a story about our complaint that the police had been inspecting residents’ cell phones, which is illegal! The article highlighted our complaint, and emphasized that the police were acting illegally. But the title of the story referred to “NGO Papo Reto…” NGO? I couldn’t believe it. I made a copy and posted it on the collective’s page, with my objections. The journalist who wrote the story commented on the post, and later sent me a personal message, saying that according to who-knows-whose definition, an NGO is a not-for-profit group of individuals doing who-knows-what, and that Papo Reto is an NGO, even though we don’t have a CNPJ [a tax ID number] or funding, and he gave me a boring academic lecture. I haven’t studied journalism, but I took a few communications courses in my museum studies program. I replied that the readers of O Dia don’t have PhDs, and that if we were described as an NGO, they would think that meant we were a formal organization with government funding, and blah, blah, blah. Just read the comments under the post! He insisted he was right, and asked me to take down the post because it was ruining his reputation–he was only concerned about his own reputation! Him! Him! Him! And he… might have problems at work. We, who “never” suffer death threats, physical or verbal violence–he wasn’t worried about us. You think I took it down? It’s been a few months now… Actually I’m thinking about reposting.

Those are a few examples. There are so many others:

  1. When they say our dead are “suspects,” even though there’s no evidence;
  2. When they always portray a black person as a criminal;
  3. When they find reasons for it to be praiseworthy to clamp someone to a post for phone theft, while overlooking the fact that this was a heinous act of torture;
  4. When they tout a miniseries called “Sex and Black Women” which doesn’t have a single black screenwriter or director;
  5. When they cheer for the ridiculous slogan, “We are all monkeys”;
  6. When they’re silent on the genocide of black people;
  7. When they say that the blame for some workers being held up on their way to work is that other workers are blocking the streets, protesting for their rights;
  8. When they hide the fact that workers are late because bus fares have gone up and they don’t have enough money.

A lot of whens….

*Museologist Thainã Medeiros, 32, lives in the Penha favela complex. He is a current member of the Papo Reto Collective.