The ''opposition party''

Sep 302010

Editor's Note: Knight Fellow Bruno Garcez discusses the upcoming Brazilian Presidential Elections.

The elections this Sunday, the 3rd, in Brazil, until very recently seemed to be heading to a very predictable outcome

The three main Presidential contenders lack the charisma of the current incumbent, Mr. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who's leaving the office with a popularity rate of nearly 80%, and haven't managed to spark the same kind of thrills and emotional scenes witnessed eight years ago, when Lula came to power.

Lula, has, of course, thrown his massive numbers and charisma into making his successor, Ms Dilma Rousseff, his former Chief of Staff, who leads the polls with an average of 50% and is likely to win the first round of the vote.

But now, although Ms Rousseff and her Workers Party still have a comfortable lead over her closest challenger, Mr. José Serra, a succession of scandals widely reported by the country's press are believed to have lead to a decline in her popularity.

The scandals involved Erenice Guerra, who replaced Ms Rousseff as Chief of Staff. According to the reports, Ms Guerra's son was involved in a bribery scheme aimed at favoring businesses seeking government contracts.

The episode lead to Ms Guerra being sacked. That wasn't the only negative story concerning Brazil's left-wing government to reach the press. There were several reports dealing with supposed malpractices and questionable actions by Brazilian authorities.

Lula, normally outspoken and prone to improvisation in his speeches, didn't hesitate to condemn what he found to be a clear bias from the press' side, accusing it of having ''a party and a candidate'', and that he would vow ''to defeat the press''.

Soon, the press hit back. Editorials with a tough line, condemning what were perceived to be threats to the freedom of speech and attempts of intimidation against the media in its efforts to conduct fair investigations.

Along with the polarization, came as well silly and slightly irresponsible attitudes from both sides.

The country's Union of Journalists, in whose ranks are many left-wing militants either affiliated to Lula's Workers Party or to others in the government lead coalition, called for a demonstration condemning the press' coverage that took place in its own headquarters and had the presence of representatives of several left-wing organizations, such as union leaders, participants of the Landless Movement and others.

Many journalists protested against the event and found it puzzling that such a politicized demonstration was taking place in a supposedly neutral ground, the main office of their own entity.

But journalists from the mainstream media also did their part in stretching the growing tensions.

An event dealing with supposed threats to freedom of press in the country took place in Rio in a location that seemed to be an irony or an insult, depending on the point of view -- the headquarters of the Military Club, comprised of a retired officials.

Taking in account the historical role of the military in deposing a democraticly elected government, in 1964, and imposing a dictatorship as well censoring the media, it definetly wasn't the best choice for a location.

But even more troubling was the presence in the event of journalists from some of the biggest news outlets in the country, namely Veja magazine and newspaper O Globo.

Lula's accusations of bias lead to widespread responses. Folha de São Paulo enphasized in its editorials that it had adopted a critical tone towards all the former presidents and even that Lula's predecessor, Mr Fernando Henrique Cardoso, had claimed that the newspaper nearly contributed to his impeachment.

The conservative O Estado de São Paulo decided it was time to come out in the open, declaring support to the center-left candidate, Mr José Serra, in the race against the more left leaning Ms Rousseff.

A respectable move, claimed many in the newsrooms, given that the newspaper's preference had been bluntly clear from the start of the presidential race and that the critical tone towards Lula and his government had spread to all of its coverage, making its news more and more editorialized.

Is the criticism to the press fair? Has it actually a preference for a specific candidate and a bias against another?

In the blogosphere, left-leaning militants are certain that that is so and have embarked on satirical campaigns to expose and ridicule the supposed bias. One of those was launched on Twitter and called ''DilmaFactsbyFolha'', in which users adopting a supposed Folha point of view, blame Dilma for nearly everything, ranging from the 9/11 attacks to the murder of a popular soap opera character .

The claim that many reporters in big outlets say informally is that the mainstream media while being very heavy handed in dealing with the government, hasn't adopted the same stance against the leading opposition party, PSDB, and its candidate Serra.

The PSDB has been running the government in the State of São Paulo for over 16 years and until early this year, Mr Serra was the governor.

There are several reporters who claim that the tone of the coverage of their outlets was far milder towards Mr Serra and his administration, partially, perhaps, to his alleged reputation for calling up editors and asking for the sacking of reporters who engage in stories perceived to be too critical towards his side.

If, on the one side, there sometimes seems to be a conspiracy theory at every corner emerging from left wing ranks, there are also remarks coming from the heart of the press that do it very few favours.

One such comment was heard recently when Maria Judith Brito, head of the National Association of Newspapers, claimed that ''the media is doing the role of opposition, since the opposition has been severely fragilized''.

That is a troubling assumption. The press is neither for the opposition nor for the authorities in power. It has to be equally critical of both sides, it should investigate throughly whatever accusations emerge, whether they involve politicians from different ideological positions, judges, lawyers or CEOS.

Claiming to be unbiased solemly just doesn't do the trick. The Brazilian press must bear in mind that it has to be perceived as being unbiased, because otherwise its own credibility might be at stake.