International press coverage of Rio 2016 could change the course of Brazilian politics

Rio's mayor has presidential aspirations, but they depend on little attention being given to human rights abuses connected with this year's Olympics

Image: Residents of the Vila Autódromo favela protest before their Residents’ Association is destroyed.

Press coverage has always had an impact on policy-making. A stark example from recent times is the shift in press coverage, followed by policy changes, regarding the Syrian migrant crisis when the body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach.

At the Olympic Games, citizens groups concerned about the detrimental impact of a sports mega-event try to draw media coverage to specific impacts in order to bring about changes in policy.

In these events, local media traditionally provides a much more forensic level of scrutiny than the international press, but in the specific case of Rio 2016, the international press has a greater potential to challenge and change policy due to several particularities of Brazil, its media landscape and foreign policy goals.

Eduardo Paes, Rio’s charismatic Mayor, is coming to the end of his second term, and is unable to seek re-election in October’s elections, with wifebeater Pedro Paulo running for Paes’ PMDB party instead. Already an accomplished politician at just 46, Paes’ greatest political victories could still lie ahead of him, particularly given the enhanced political capital he will almost certainly gain from the upcoming Olympic party.

It is an open secret that he harbours ambitions to be President of his country, and has made some initial suggestions that he may run in the next election, due to be held in 2018 – although depending on the outcome of impeachment proceedings currently underway against incumbent Dilma Rousseff, this could be sooner.

In recent years, Paes’ party has chosen not to run its own candidate in presidential elections, instead focussing on congressional and gubernatorial elections. In a recent interview with the right-wing magazine Veja however, Paes suggested this could change, laying the groundwork for his bid to succeed Rousseff in the Planalto.

As President, and even as a presidential candidate, Paes’ international reputation will be under scrutiny as it will affect his ability on the world stage in terms of foreign policy. One of the key prongs of Brazilian foreign policy, arguably even the central goal around which all policy is orientated, is the desire to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

While human rights abuse is clearly no barrier to those already members, Brazil’s argument that it will be a voice for the Global South, outside the old Cold war dynamics and advocating for the world’s poorest may be undermined somewhat if the world remembers Paes as a man who oversaw serious violations of human rights in order to have an egotistical swansong as Mayor at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Video released by Terre des Hommes alongside the Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics’ latest dossier of human rights abuses

The importance of the international media in covering such violations is partly filling a gap left by local media. Globo, by far Brazil’s biggest media conglomerate, has essentially abandoned critical journalism about the Olympic preparations, instead becoming an official sponsor of the event.

This leaves the largest and most influential source of news in the country with a vested interest in the Games being seen as a success by Brazilians. Such is the dominance of Globo in the national media landscape that many Brazilian’s remain unaware of the negative impacts of the Olympic Games.

This has left a space for various international publications to take a lead on reporting these impacts. Associated Press, for example, broke the story about the levels of pollution in Guanabara Bay, where sailing events will take place. Various international outlets have carried reports on evictions in Vila Autódromo, a favela located next to the Olympic park in the West Zone of the city.

The Guardian coverage has been particularly forensic, including a revealing interview with property tycoon Carlos Carvalho about his desire to build an exclusive ‘city of the elite’, leaving no space for the poor. New media has also got in on the act, with Vice Brasil in particular covering these evictions at a personal level with in-depth interviews with residents.

This is a particularly pertinent story for Paes. In his previous role as vice-Mayor for the West Zone in the 1990s, he made several attempts to remove the community, located on the idyllic Jacarepaguá lagoon near the wealthy Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood.

The land is coveted by real estate developers, who have funded Paes’s Mayoral election campaigns both directly and indirectly through donations to the PMDB. Residents are convinced he has agreed to evict the community in order to gain this funding, clearing the way for Carvalho and others to build their ‘city of the elite’.

He has pledged numerous times that residents who wish to stay can do so, but other city officials, led by current vice-Mayor for the West Zone Alex Costa, have allegedly run a campaign of psychological ‘terrorism’ against the residents in an attempt to convince them to leave.

Image 2

A house being demolished in Vila Autódromo. The graffiti reads “we’re going to stay”.

Coverage of this issue, as well as more general coverage of Carioca politics and society, has been significantly enhanced by the presence of permanent international correspondents living and working in the Olympic city.

Latin America is not a high priority for most international media outlets, which focus primarily on North America, Europe and the Middle East. Even major international outlets such as the Guardian or New York Times have only two or three journalists covering the entire continent, despite the vast array of issues to keep abreast of, from drug wars in Mexico, through socialist revolutionaries in Venezuela and Colombia, to corruption scandals in Brazil.

Before Rio de Janeiro was announced as host of the 2016 Olympic Games, these few journalists were scattered across the continent, in major cities such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and São Paulo as well as Rio itself.

With the Olympic party due to descend on Rio however, many journalists are now based in the city. Even though many still fly around the continent to cover stories, living in Rio allows them develop a much greater, more nuanced understanding of the city’s historic issues of inequality, violence and racism.

This is reflected in their writing, as research conducted by favela advocacy NGO Catalytic Communities shows a greater understanding of these issues, relying on evidence instead of tired stereotypes. Catalytic Communities has had an active role in improving this understanding through it’s work connecting favela residents to journalists, as well as its own focussed reporting on favelas through the news site RioOnWatch.

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Once a vibrant community, Vila Autódromo has been decimated to make way for the Olympic hotel, which can be seen in the background

This combination of factors gives the international press a unique ability to influence policy under the Olympic spotlight. Through their potential to tarnish Paes’s reputation on the international stage and therefore damage his presidential aspirations, international journalists hold a privileged position of power in the lead-up to the Games.

Indeed, residents of Vila Autódromo have used this to their advantage, welcoming a vast array of international media into their community.

It remains to be seen whether this will have any effect on policy. With the Games less than six months away, the Mayor still has a decision to make about Vila Autódromo. His recently announced plan for upgrading the community, which has still not been presented to residents, includes fewer homes (30) than families still living there (35).

This stands in marked contrast to the residents’ internationally acclaimed Popular Plan. As such, residents are refusing to leave but fear violent, unlawful evictions.

How Paes chooses to proceed, and the coverage of this choice by the international media, will be telling for any potential presidential campaign.

Adam Talbot is a doctoral researcher at the University of Brighton, working on resistance to the Rio 2016 Olympics. He tweets at @AdamTalbotSport

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