Official Censorship Is Gone, But 'Rumor as News' Still Remains
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — RECIPES often made Page One of many Brazilian newspapers during a military dictatorship that came to power in 1964. It wasn't that readers were fascinated with food, though. It was just a signal that the in-house censor had nixed a story.
Censorship was phased out in the late 1970s and ended completely when a civilian government took office in 1985, sparking a renaissance for the Brazilian news media. Until then, inside information on Brazilian politics and on the economy was hard to come by. For example, there were no unemployment statistics and the federal budget was broken up into three parts that could not be analyzed as a unit. Most Brazilians believed that the official inflation rate was a lie.
Reliable information could be had from the British Broadcasting Corporation plus two alternative publications, the Relatorio Reservado (Reserved Report), and the Latin America Political Report.
Today, the best information on Brazilian events is found in mainstream publications. The Gazeta Mercantil, a weekday paper, provides highly reliable and complete business news, albeit in a less-readable format than, say, the Wall Street Journal. The Rio de Janeiro daily Jornal do Brasil provides general news, with especially good coverage of Indians, the environment, and social issues. Because its "Informe JB" column has a direct line to the presidential palace in Brasilia, its readers can often get some
idea of what's on the president's mind.
Veja (Look), a newsweekly, is the local version of Time or Newsweek, whose in-depth reporting often has a profound impact on national events.
Most Brazilian media companies are family owned, which complicates interpretation of the news. Each publication has its own angle, which varies according to its relations with local and federal governments, its financial condition, and the perceived mood of the readership.
The daily Folha de Sao Paulo, for example, has an ongoing battle with President Fernando Collor de Mello and his spokesman, Claudio Humberto Rosa e Silva, and this colors much of the news published in it. Early in Mr. Collor's term, the Folha underwent a police search of its premises that it says the president ordered. The paper retaliated by running a picture of Collor in battle fatigues alongside one of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and a caption calling the Brazilian president a fascist.
With the exception of the Folha, targeted at a young, TV-oriented public, much of the Brazilian print media is hard to digest. "The style of journalism is more esoteric and presumptuous, not that American approach of [writing as though the reader were] an intelligent eighth-grader," says Richard Foster, an American journalist who publishes BrazilWatch, an alternative newsletter that summarizes the news in English. "A tiny percent of the people read newspapers daily," he adds. Despite a total population of 140 million, Veja's circulation is only 877,000, for example.
Given enough time and experience, a consumer of the Brazilian media in this decade can learn to read between the lines of the mainstream press to get a fairly good idea of what is really happening (although some areas are covered scantily, such as reporting on the military and congress).
Nevertheless, Brazilians have kept the strong penchant for rumor that they developed during the era of censorship. This can still overshadow straight news. During the 1985-90 government of President Jose Sarney, a tradition developed of a new rumor every Thursday. The rumor would inevitably tangle big-city phone lines, stir up the inflation-ridden, highly speculative financial markets, and drive then-finance minister Mailson da Nobrega to weekly denials that he was about to step down or introduce a new a nti-inflation plan.
Last month, a fax newsletter published by the respected daily O Estado de Sao Paulo reported that Collor would soon be having a serious medical operation. The stock market plunged. It took several days for Mr. Rosa e Silva to get his version of the story across (no operation was planned). Even so, many Brazilians are still wondering about their president's health.