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“Is It War?” A Debate on the Language About Violence in Favelas

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In light of the increasing tensions in Rio de Janeiro favelas such as Complexo da Maré, Jacarezinho, and Complexo do Alemão, Brazilian and global media are increasingly describing the city’s situation as one of “war.” On Saturday, September 2, the investigative journalism hub Casa Pública hosted a discussion on public security and the use of the word “war” in coverage of Rio’s favelas. The focus was on the implications of this language for both people living in favelas and those living in the formal city. Journalist Rogério Daflon moderated the discussion between El País journalist María Martín, journalist and researcher Cecília Olliveira, Military Police ex-commander Colonel Íbis Pereira, and Lidiane Malanquini from the Maré civil society organization Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré.

The event began with a screening of the short documentary “Bala Perdida” by Agência Pública, before Colonel Ibis Pereira opened the discussion by reminding the audience that Brazil is home to many of the most dangerous cities in the world (19 Brazilian cities were on a 2016 list of the world’s 50 most violent cities). Of those cities, he said, Rio de Janeiro has the highest annual number of violent deaths of those aged between 15 and 29 years old. The colonel argued it is important to view violence as deriving from the lack of good public security policies: “We should not fall into the temptation of talking about war, but we have to start talking more about public security policies.”

Lidiane Malanquini asserted that the discourse of “war” erases the government’s responsibility to develop public security policy. This “war” narrative, she said, creates a situation in which “people speak a lot about the data and don’t speak about the emotional repercussions. How can we quantify the situation of the families that are broken by this violence, and the feelings of a whole street on seeing a young person dead? So I think it is really important that people start to look at what is behind these data.” Speaking about the current situation in Complexo da Maré in terms of “war,” Malanquini continued, legitimizes the everyday deaths and violence occurring due to armed conflicts with the police. Residents’ everyday experience of violence is allegedly due to the “war on drugs” which the government claims will bring security to the city’s population, but for whom is this security?

All the speakers underlined how crucial it is to understand the consequences of the language used in reporting. Cecília Olliveira suggested people often use strong words without considering the weight of their meaning, and that “the word ‘war’ is deeply rooted in Rio de Janeiro’s language.” She explained that words such as “heroism” and “conquer” derive from police reports and from the military’s vocabulary of war, and have been absorbed over the years into the language of journalists and the general public: “therefore, the people speak like the newspapers speak, which speak like the police speak and so on.” Olliveira said the newspapers applying the language of “war” are legitimizing the behaviors of war.

Olliveira also recounted how difficult it is, as a reporter, to find the real numbers of victims and of shootings in the city from the police. Working with the project Fogo Cruzado, which monitors armed confrontations and resulting deaths, Olliveira has to triangulate information gathered from three sources: the users of the application, newspapers, and the armed forces. She said that even within the police, information is decentralized, resulting in contradictory data that make it difficult to quantify the repercussions of police interventions in favelas. Moreover, disinformation within the armed forces themselves creates a situation in which even police officers often do not have full information about their missions; Olliveira said they often don’t have a clear idea of the purpose of their actions beyond “killing the enemy.”

The idea of a war in the minds of the armed forces and in the pages of newspapers, continued Colonel Ibis Pereira, also creates a profile of people who can be killed in the war. He explained that people involved in drug trafficking are considered “killable,” because they are all allegedly part of the crime that this “war” fights against. Their deaths become justified and publicly accepted. Pereira said the war-centered language derives from the militarization of the police in Brazil’s dictatorship, a phenomenon which has not yet been dismantled. “Therefore, it is vital to change the terms in which this situation is reported,” affirmed the colonel.

Malanquini added that the word “war” also comes with words such as “collateral damage”: “Therefore, a child killed by a bullet in their school becomes ‘collateral damage’ of the ‘war’ against the enemy. If the people use the word ‘war’ they also legitimize its violating practices.”

Olliveira stressed that journalists need to do more to humanize the people living in areas affected by violence: “When one person is killed in the conflict, the family also lives this death. But the [readers] don’t care about it and they don’t know that the mother of a victim tried to kill herself… [Journalists] have to stop saying, “someone died,” but include information on who that person was, where that victim came from, and what about the family? There is a need to humanize these people in the news.” Olliveira acknowledged the difficulties facing reporters who find themselves summarizing the bare minimum of information in order to create fast news, augmenting the dehumanization process. She said an important task of journalists is to try not to fall into this trap.

A member of the audience asked how these representations in the media affect society, specifically people living in favelas. Olliveira reflected that often favela residents give up on speaking to the press, as their words are often reported wrongly or inserted in a context that contradicts their opinions. She said “it is important that, as a journalist, you care about the person you are speaking with.” To fight perceived biases, Malanquini explained that people in Maré have started sending reports to newspapers that include information regarding the consequences of the operations conducted by the police—such as the number of schools and shops closed—to give a different and more complete image of the armed conflict and of the affected areas.

Another audience member asked what type of language the media should use to avoid reinforcing the images of “war” and “victims of war.” Malanquini responded that “the first step is to start talking about the peripheries for other issues beyond just violence,” such as community initiatives and the potential of the youth population. She believes that by focusing on the topic of violence, journalists are automatically reinforcing the war discourse. This echoed Olliveira’s argument that newspapers have to cooperate more with reporters from favelas as there are many community journalists reporting a completely different type of news with the potential to create a different image of the peripheries. She recounted how Michel Silva, a community journalist from Rocinha, said that if newspapers had more reporters from the favelas they would know that the current situation is not war and they would better understand the political dynamics.

Offering a final reflection to close the event, Colonel Pereira emphasized the challenge and the importance for journalists to try to transmit humanity along with the news of violence in order to affect the audience emotionally, rather than leaving them indifferent.