What good will come of Brazil’s biggest paper’s pro-democracy stand?

. Jun 30, 2020
What good will come of Brazil's biggest paper's pro democracy stand? Jair Bolsonaro bashes Folha de S.Paulo. Photo: Still from NBR

Amid rising institutional tensions in Brazil, with supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro taking to the streets to openly call for military intervention and the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, the country’s most influential newspaper has taken a stand. Folha de S. Paulo, the paper with the biggest circulation in Brazil, launched a campaign last week to ‘safeguard democracy,’ publishing a wealth of educational material on the military dictatorship.

The paper’s motto, previously “A newspaper at the service of Brazil,” has been replaced by “A newspaper at the service of democracy,” which will remain in place until the 2022 election. These words appear on Folha’s masthead, which also now includes a yellow band, a reference to the popular movement in favor of direct presidential elections in 1985.

</p> <p>The basic idea behind the campaign is that half of the Brazilian population was born after 1985, when the last president of the military dictatorship left office. With creeping threats against the country&#8217;s democracy, Folha is attempting to show younger generations exactly what life under the military regime was like. “We have seen and will never forget the horrors of the dictatorship. And we will always defend democracy,” reads one of the campaign pieces.&nbsp;</p> <h2>A nod to Bolsonaro?</h2> <p>Folha&#8217;s declaration doesn&#8217;t directly oppose President Jair Bolsonaro, who represents the current push <a href="">against Brazilian democracy</a>. The mentions of the head of state are careful and not explicit, while emphasizing that the country&#8217;s political system is facing its most significant stress test since the end of the dictatorship.</p> <p>“The institutional role of a newspaper like Folha is to show in an educational and unbiased way what happened so that it doesn’t happen anymore. There is <a href="">no solution outside of democracy</a>, there is no path other than that of the Constitution,” said editor-in-chief Sérgio Dávila.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Nurturing a young democracy</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s current democracy was born in the 1980s. In 1984, the campaign for direct elections was the first massive public mobilization since the coup in 1964. Four years later, the country agreed on a <a href="">new Constitution</a> then in 1989 voted for president for the first time since 1960. Since, seven presidents have been in office, two have been impeached.</p> <p>Pedro Abramovay, former National Secretary of Justice and director of the Open Society Foundations in Latin America, welcomes the campaign to reinforce the support of the young regime.</p> <p>“Democracy is under threat; the pact for the 1988 [Constitution] is under threat. The center of this pact is democracy, freedom of speech, and the press. It is a vision of an inclusive national project, which values ​​minority rights, which tries to include excluded majorities. The Constitution is a pact for everyone; it is a project of a country that is not left or right-wing, it has basic principles that must be defended by various organs of society: press, civil society, social movements.”</p> <p>Journalist and researcher Eugênio Bucci does not think the campaign hinders Folha&#8217;s daily coverage. According to him, who is also a professor at the University of São Paulo, the campaign is consistent with the press’s expected role in a democratic society.</p> <p>“Journalism must look for a non-partisan point of view, a point of view that has a certain equidistance between opinions in conflicts. But when it comes to a cleavage between democracy and authoritarianism, journalism cannot stand in the way; it only exists within democracy. For journalism to defend democracy is almost a tautology.”</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="860" height="570" src="" alt="democracy coup 1964" class="wp-image-43627" srcset=" 860w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 860px) 100vw, 860px" /><figcaption>April 1, 1964: the coup against democracy. Photo: Public Archives</figcaption></figure> <h2>Distrust in the press&nbsp;</h2> <p>The scenario in which the campaign is launched is messy. Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on a severe platform in opposition to established institutions, including the press. He and his supporters ascribe professional journalism as being corrupt and manipulative. The discourse proved to be efficient in an environment of distrust in the media.</p> <p>In his first year in office, the president attacked the press 116 times, <a href="">according to the National Federation of Brazilian Journalists</a> — Folha is one of his favorite targets. In 2019 he ordered the cancellation of subscriptions to the paper at every federal department and publicly labeled the press as corrupt. A significant part of his supporters does not see professional journalism as legitimate.&nbsp;</p> <p>This, consequently, casts doubt over the effectiveness of Folha&#8217;s campaign in favor of democracy. How can they change hearts and minds, when they are viewed as illegitimate — or at the very least, suspect — by large parts of the population.</p> <p>In general terms, the Brazilian press has been deeply critical of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. This treatment of the government increases the feeling among Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters that the mainstream media is out to get him. “If Folha were supporting a party, a group, this could impact the coverage. If you were supporting a specific plan, you could compromise. But the press is against power, the civil society too, it is an act of checks and balances against established powers,” analyses Mr. Abramovay.</p> <p>Despite the many crises and attacks on democracy, President Bolsonaro has approval ratings hovering around 30 percent of the population.</p> <p>Alongside the campaign, Folha published a survey carried out by its pollster Datafolha, which shows that 75 percent of Brazilians support democracy as the best form of government. “I believe the campaign in defense of democracy raises an alert for those who normally do not value the press for the merits of the press,” adds Mr. Abramovay.</p> <h2>The challenge of uniting the opposition</h2> <p>The mainstream media is largely despised by Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters, but it is also heavily criticized by those on the left-wing. They accuse professional journalism of paving the way for Mr. Bolsonaro, by demonizing politics and the center-left Workers’ Party in the coverage of corruption schemes.</p> <p>The challenge of reuniting people behind this cause may be similar to what has been happening to efforts to build a broad front against Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s government. Several manifestos to this end have been released recently, but none has reached a consensus. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, convicted in the 2010s anti-corruption crusade, refuses to sign documents alongside rivals he thinks were complicit with what his supporters believe was political persecution.&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is crucial that people understand that being on the same side in defense of democracy does not mean having to agree on everything. Differences need to be set aside in a minimal pact in support of 1988, democracy, and the separation of powers. Once the risk [to democracy] is over, each one can go back to their political work,” said Mr. Abramovay.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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