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Snowflakes Hither, Yonder and In the Tropics: Ungentrifying Journalism from Brazil to Ecuador

| August 17, 2020

In October 2019, Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno announced a new round of austerity measures. As the cost of gasoline, diesel, transport and food skyrocketed in the wake of his announcement, the national strike quickly transformed into mass protests. I was in the heart of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, as riot police, tanks, untold amounts of tear gas, and the full gamut of the security apparatus was deployed against demonstrators.

Eleven days later, with an official death toll of eight people and almost 1,200 arrested, the government rescinded. The Kichwa, Shuar, Secoya, the full breadth of the 14 indigenous nations, including Afro-Ecuadoreans, the poor and working class — the people had won this round. And I, to the best of my knowledge, had become the sole person of African-descent to provide an international report of the events.


Segregated media reports from Brazil

The once popular hashtag, #NewsroomsSoWhite, carries a good measure of this malign. In Brazil, home to the second largest African-descendent population in the world behind Nigeria, gentrified, global-north newsmakers have spread like wild mushrooms after a downpour. Among this bunch, we count the Intercept-Brasil, Jacobin-Brasil, El Pais, and Le Monde Diplomatique. CNN Brasil launched this year.

In one report, CNN Brasil’s Shasta Darlington — a white woman — opens her coverage with video footage of black youths flashing guns and selling drugs in a Rio de Janeiro favela. It’s curious inasmuch as its striking resemblance to Adriana Diaz’s CBS News “On Assignment” report “The Guns of Chicago.” The general message: black youths are armed, shirtless, virulent, sorted into gangs, and pathetically dangerous. Popular, value-neutral consumption is its aim. No examination of Brazil being one of the most socially stratified countries on earth. No mention of a decades-long exodus of souls from the country’s northeast region, fleeing both drought and economic depravation in search of green pastures in the marvelous city and São Paulo. No subsequent comparative report on Operação Calabar, a 2017 investigation which led to the arrest of 80 Rio de Janeiro military police for selling automatic rifles and munitions to drug-traffickers.

If uncareful, one might mistake Darlington’s report for a promo hyping the ongoing militarization of Rio de Janeiro. Why not? As a 6-year-old girl in Quito’s Carolina Park told me one day, “Todos los negritos son ladrones” (All niggas are thieves). Unsure, and absolutely sure of my aural faculty, I hardened my face and asked, “What did you say?” Squaring me eye to eye, her sassy gull was anything but circumspect—“Todos los negritos son ladrones.” Indeed, Darlington’s reporting is as opaque as it is disaggregating, a notorious case study on segregated international news coverage and its belittling of global perspectives.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald has tasked himself with defending “Brazilian democracy.” Whatever that means. For us who speak Portuguese, it does mean having to endure his robotic enunciation of an otherwise beautiful language. Not that Tupí-Guaraní is of any less stature or beauty. “We don’t speak Portuguese, we sing it,” an artisan in the Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic centre, once told me.

Greenwald’s coverage has garnered ire from Brazil’s right-wing, even a few swings from Augusto Nunes. His commitment to unveiling how Sergio Moro conspired with other top officials to convict Brazil’s most popular and successful president, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, is unquestionable. As bounty, Bolsonaro handpicked Moro to serve as his Minister of Justice days after “winning” the presidency. After having been removed from the UN’s hunger list and millions lifted out of poverty during Lula’s presidency, Brazil was taking a sharp turn to an ungainful future.

Notwithstanding Greenwald’s defense of Lula, it cannot be ignored that his work dwells in a silo of privilege. In the current, polarized tug-of-war mouthing left-this, right-that, support fascism or democracy—dare the imagination recall a single day when Brazil held the status of democracy—voices ruminating as outliers wither away. The binaries at work don’t register their signals.

“Brazil has blacks too?” is a quote attributed to former U.S. president George W. Bush. However, Greenwald too seems to have forgotten that he lives in a country where black people are not only the majority, but have the agency and skills to hold their own in international journalism. This fact is not so much as an afterthought for the bevy of progressive media powers operating in the tropics: the mammoth machine of mainstream and western media at-large tells us who is articulate enough, indeed worldly, mindful, and honest enough to saddle the demands required of international journalism. In its view, people of color, in general, and black people, in particular, lack the wherewithal to assume this role.

Unfortunately, progressive Brazilian news outlets fare no better. The editorial board and international correspondents at Brasil 24/7, Carta Capital, Brasil de Fato, and Pragmatismo Político, to name a few, indicate that their staff is as exclusionary as Bolsonaro’s cabinet members, an issue they hotly opposed. Placing a mirror before his ministers merely reflects the callous, monolithic state of journalism.


Racial democracy vs reality

Last year (2019) the Rio de Janeiro police force set a new record. At least 1,546 people were killed by law enforcement. I emphasize at least because the body count, according to the Instituto de Segurança Pública, is comprised from January to October 2019. Black youths comprised the majority of victims. Does eight-year-old Ágatha Félix ring a bell? Shot in the back, killed by policemen who invaded the Complexo do Alemão favelas on the 20th of September 2019, Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Wilson Witzel, publicly blamed her murder on people who “smoke marijuana.” Daniel Lozoya, a member of Rio de Janeiro’s Public Defenders Office commented “the more the state kills, the more it strikes…young black youths in favelas.”

In 2017, Brazil broke another record. Government figures recorded 63,880 homicides, a number far exceeding annual casualties in countries at war. Despite this bloodbath, the country pampers itself to the inculpable PR tune of racial democracy. Heralded into the public imagination at the turn of the nineteenth century, racial democracy implies that miscegenation between Indigenous people, Africans and Europeans rendered a society free of institutional and picayune racism. Conceptually part and parcel of maintaining Brazil’s hyper-stratified society, it has systematically excluded and kept black people at the dirt end of the socioeconomic totem pole. In modern politics, the few exceptions—Marielle Franco, Talíria Petrone, Benedita da Silva, Áurea Carolina—only validate the rule. Exceptions are even slimmer in international media.

Two boys draw a depiction of the police shooting of 13-year-old girl during a shootout with alleged traffickers in Rio de Janeiro. Leo Correa | AP

In September 2018, Geysson Santos took to the mic of Hip-Hop Sem Maquiagem (Hip-Hop Without Makeup), a podcast hosted by Allison Tiago and produced from the periphery of São Paulo that routinely interviews black activists. He spared no bones in dismantling Brazil’s siloed leadership class and racial democracy. “The role the left purports to do,” Santos stressed, “falls short because they distance themselves from periphery communities.” He pointed out that traditional left-wing political parties have emerged, primarily, from university student movements or workers’ unions. Be they right or left-wing, the directorial makeup of both organizations remain dominated and controlled by Brazil’s privileged white minority.

Santos emphasized that because of their demographic makeup, traditional left-wing and progressive political parties distance themselves from the very communities they wish to salve. In his assessment, these political parties “don’t reflect our image and our day-to-day militancy… I believe vices exist… and it’s difficult for us, those from periphery communities, to take active roles in them… the way Brazil’s left was formed, even the foundation of Brazil itself, established through extreme racism and bureaucracy. So, it becomes a battleground within the left-wing and progressive camps just to discuss issues involving our youth, the genocide perpetrated against our black youth.” As a result, he concluded, “other structures are organized.”

Consigned to the periphery, forced to build “other structures” as Santos eluded to, independent black media outlets in Brazil have amassed significant followings on their websites and social media platforms. Still, news outlets like Alma Preta, Correio Nagȏ, Notícias Pretas, Hip-Hop Sem Maquiagem, CULTNE Acervo, and others lack the hard resources and, consequently, structural reach so readily available to their competitors and self-proclaimed allies. This includes, but not limited to, no funds, not even a pittance of an honorarium for working writers and staff members; research; on-the-ground and investigative reporting; travel; food; and other essentials of the trade. Unlike The Intercept, co-founded by Greenwald and funded by tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar (eBay founder), the aforementioned media outlets operate on shoestring to zero budgets. Meanwhile, salaries at The Intercept “dwarf those at other center-left, non-profit outlets,” according to a 2019 report published by Columbia Journalism Review. In 2015, Greenwald took home $518,000 and, in 2017, The Intercept, which is classified as a public charity, paid $9.3 million in salaries. In fact, “its largesse may force the non-profit side of the company to abandon its IRS charitable status and reclassify itself as a private foundation.”


International media for whose sake?

Before packing my bags and heading to Ecuador a black man asked me, “Are there black people in Ecuador?” This gentleman, an entrepreneur, was older than I and his query aroused great curiosity, to say the least. A few seconds passed. He had combined a sense of innocent naivety in posing his question. I finally responded. The question remains etched firmly in my mind. “Are there black people in Ecuador?”

Media is an extension of pedagogic work. Both are of strategic importance to any people, community, nation. Black and brown people, however, have been and continue to be marginalized in front of and behind the western news lens. It must be well understood that staking our understanding of the world around us on such media outlets, immobilizes, more often than not, the agency demanded of international solidarity. From Fox News to The Intercept Brazil, CNN to Brazil 24/7, right to left-wing and back again, this echo chamber of whiteness has rendered the narratives of black and brown people even more invisible.

Lack of diversity in media is by no means a natural phenomenon. It is not a creationist blip that white bodies must scientifically make right. The responsibility rests in our hands, you and me, to assume the reigns of our stories in order to broaden global perspectives. In doing so we, believe it or not, extend a hand of brother and sisterhood in international diplomacy and relations. If we are remissed, driven solely by careerism, oblivious to the zeal of bonafide world citizens, we will not know that more than one million Afro-Ecuadoreans exist. Most live in the northern province of Esmeraldas and Valle del Chota, as segregated from mainstream Ecuadorean society as a young black man in the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Ultimately, our knowledge of world events and affairs will remain dependent on and, consequently, stifled by media segregation.

A version of this article was previously published at Model View Culture

Feature photo | Bandeirantes television news reporter, Ernani Alves, right, reacts after his colleague Gelson Domingos was shot during a police operation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Agencia O Globo | Fernando Quevedo via AP

Julian Cola is a translator (Brazilian-Portuguese to English). A former staff writer at the pan-Latin American news outlet, teleSUR, his articles and essays also appear in Africa is a Country, Black Agenda Report, Truthout, Counterpunch and elsewhere.

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