21/10/2011 – by Elton Hubner
Arms wide open, a large, towering statue of Jesus Christ blesses the seven million inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro, a city whose radiating warmth and dazzling sceneries welcome tourists from across the world. This is one of the most visited places in the southern hemisphere, attracting approximately three million foreign tourists per year.
The number would probably be much higher if the so-called “marvellous city” did not have a frightening, dark side: an exceptionally high violent crime rate.
In 2009, the public security secretary of Rio de Janeiro registered 2155 murders in the city – three times as many as occurred in all of Germany that year.
As in most other large Brazilian cities, crime closely relates to the economic disparity that separates the rich from the poor. In Rio de Janeiro, however, this disparity is especially visible, since most of the city’s hill slopes are favelas, quarters of marginalised “communities” where disadvantaged people live. The first favelas emerged about 100 years ago as illegal settlements. Although they are covered by town planning today, they are still considered somewhat informal and in many ways resemble slums (see Veronika Duffner: “Second class citizens” in D+C/E+Z 2011/3, p. 110 ff.).
Today, more than 500 favelas are home to nearly one fifth of Rio’s population. Deprived of police protection and access to courts of justice, many of these citizens have become helplessly subject to a world run by drug dealers who make their own laws, build their own armies, impose curfews on local merchants and punish transgressors or rivals with merciless severity. As Rio de Janeiro prepares itself to host the 2014 Football Worldcup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, authorities want to tackle crime issues fast and relocate the people of some favelas to housing projects.
Mainstream media reports have traditionally presented a civil-war-like scenario in which the police and delinquents play the lead roles. When impartiality has to be sacrificed, the media normally leans to the side of the state apparatus, which guarantees them a continuous flow of information without much sacrifice on the part of newsrooms. Moreover, since they do not do much investigative reporting, the mainstream media fail to understand links between the criminal underworld and state agencies.
According to the mainstream media coverage in Rio de Janeiro, recent crime-fighting actions have been a success, and the relocations bring several benefits to families who, so far, were living in areas considered dangerous or inappropriate for construction. But how do the people from these places feel? How do the families concerned assess their living conditions? What do they demand from authorities? These are questions that the Agência de Notícias das Favelas (“News Agency of the Favelas”), or ANF, has been trying to answer for a decade.
ANF was created in 2001 by André Fernandes, a 40-year-old journalist who worked in different favelas as a missionary in the 1990s. The website (anf.org.br) aims to democratise information. It seeks not only to transmit news from the favelas, but also to put them into context. Therefore, the news agency also publishes opinion essays in which authors discuss various topics. Once per month, a selection of articles from the website is published in a 50,000-copy print edition.
Meanwhile, ANF even offers online courses to train what André Fernandes calls “communitary correspondents”. By providing residents of the favelas with basic journalistic skills, the courses aim to improve news coverage from marginalised areas that do not get much public attention.
The content on the ANF website is produced by people from various backgrounds. The authors have personal passwords, so they can upload their content on the organisation’s website. Typically, these people gather information that mainstream reporters find hard to get or that newspapers would not publish. In early 2011, the agency had less than 100 contributors, but the number is growing.
ANF is reaching out beyond Rio’s city limits. “In four years, we wish to have one thousand people sending their contributions from all over the world,” says Fernandes. “By 2015, we want to have correspondents in other Latin American countries, starting with Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico.”
The website already has international reach. In 1994, the sociologist Caio Ferraz sought political asylum in the United States to escape death threats from the police after a slaughter that left 21 unarmed people dead in Vigário Geral, a favela in Rio. Today, Ferraz uses ANF to question the Brazilian government’s actions and efficiency.
The next step towards expansion is to develop coverage of favelas from other cities in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which are home to about 16 million people in an area slightly larger than Denmark. Over the next four years, ANF intends to focus on three topics:
– One is the current series of relocations shifting large populations from the favelas to housing projects. “Some 120 relocations are expected to be made before the World Cup in 2014,” says Fernandes. “The press has mentioned that about 30,000 people should be affected, but the number is much higher. Some of these people live in dangerous areas, but many relocations are actually a kind of cosmetic operation for the city.”
– The second is the implementation of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) programme, which aims to reclaim “conflict areas” controlled by drug dealers. According to José Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s secretary of public security, 40 UPPs are supposed to bring peace to 140 communities. While the local and international media usually reproduce the information given by the secretary and other spokespeople for the government, Fernandes wants to give residents of the occupied favelas the chance to tell their stories as well. “Some months ago, television networks provided good coverage of the occupation of Complexo do Alemão”, evaluates Fernandes. “However, the media could not capture the scenes of policemen beating local residents. Some witnesses posted videos on YouTube. Now, they can also post videos on ANF’s website.”
– The agency’s third focus is on the education system. According to Andrelino Campos, a geography professor, the mainstream media do not pay it enough attention and falsely portray violence in the favelas as an exclusive consequence of drug dealing. “Schools end up being used for many purposes other than teaching: eating, sleeping, playing soccer,” Campos says, while learning is not high on the agenda: “No wonder there is so much violence.”
ANF’s editor-in-chief Fernandes argues that the media’s distance from the favelas reflects economic issues: “The press in Rio de Janeiro is very open to what the government does, especially because the state and municipal governments buy advertising in their newspapers.” On the other hand, fear matters too, especially since the investigative journalist Tim Lopes was kidnapped, tortured and killed in a Rio favela in 2002.
ANF and the Observatório das Favelas (“Observatory of the Favelas”), another organisation that produces news from the favelas, have also built bridges between reporters and sources. The effort to bring these elements together not only facilitates reporters’ access to information, but also helps protect sources who are usually given the choice to remain anonymous. “When we put people in contact with the press, we advise them to consider the possible consequences of their disclosure,” explains journalist Vitor Monteiro de Castro from the Observatório das Favelas.
The most important newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, O Globo (“The Globe”), has carried the stigma of being biased for a long time. Only recently did it start to show some willingness to change its coverage of the favelas. It has also created a blog called Favela Livre (“Free Favela”) to strengthen the newspaper’s own network of sources by connecting the newsroom directly to the people in the favelas. Fernandes sees this as an attempt to copy what ANF has been working on for ten years. “The difference,” he says, “is that we are doing it from the inside.”