Grassroots media on the rise amid Brazil protests and Pope Francis visit

Brazil's Mídia Ninja is a citizen media group that's been covering widespread protests through live streaming and other social media tools.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
Pope Francis waves to pilgrims from his popemobile as he arrives to the Aparecida Basilica in Aparecida, Brazil, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blogRiogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

One of the most interesting elements of Brazil's protests, which continue to simmer across the country in smaller numbers, is the use of new media to plan, broadcast, and report on the demonstrations. Mídia Ninja is perhaps the best known group to emerge, and has used social media and webcasting as tools to cover the protests.

Given its role, Mídia Ninja could have simply been evidence of a rise in citizen journalism, but it has also gained a role as a protagonist in the protests. On July 22, during a Rio protest on day one of the Pope's visit to Brazil, two Mídia Ninjareporters were arrested (and subsequently released) after police claimed they were trying to "incite violence" by broadcasting the event. A total of seven people were arrested, and one of the protesters was initially denied bail. He spoke to ninja reporters with the hope that someone would find a video to prove his innocence and through social media, Mídia Ninja advocated for his release. The coverage worked, and he was released on Tuesday afternoon. Nevertheless, the backlash against the arrests exploded on social media, and while the full repercussions have yet to be seen, there are echoes of police brutality and arrests of journalists at Occupy Wall Street. And if the original São Paulo protests proved anything, it's that police violence against journalists will fuel the protests even more.

Plus, Midia Ninja gained enough clout that Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes gave reporters an interview this week. The interview surprised traditional journalists, some of whom felt the ninjas were unprepared. But the fact that the mayor appears to have offered the interview indicates how far the group has come.

To learn more about the group, I spoke to Felipe Altenfelder, one of the Mídia Ninja editors, about the "ninjas" and the future of citizen journalism in Brazil.

This group arose out of another organization called Casa Fora do Eixo in São Paulo. The collective of artists and cultural producers was created in 2005 and sought to promote and produce art, cultural events, and online content. Developed by Fora do Eixo's communications team, Mídia Ninja – which stands for Independent Narratives, Journalism, and Action – came about after using new digital tools and contact with traditional journalists in São Paulo. In fact, one of the founders, Bruno Torturraquit his job in the mainstream media to start Mídia Ninja.

Mídia Ninja is now present in 200 cities across Brazil, in places Fora do Eixo previously established networks. "The ninja is defined by working collectively," Altenfelder explained. "It's not anonymous; it's a collective identity." During the protests, the ninjas broadcast the demonstrations on livestream channels on Twitcasting and on the group's channel, PosTV. They also posted live updates and photos onTwitter and Facebook, as well as Tumblr, Google Plus, Instagram, and Flickr. In some cases, ninjas use iPhones or bare bones equipment; in others, they push around a shopping cart complete with a generator, speakers, a computer, cameras, a microphone, and an editing table. "We want to democratize information," ninja Filipe Peçanha told O Dia. "The purpose is to show what conventional TV networks don't show."

The concept of livestreaming came about in 2011 when Fora do Eixo created PosTV to originally broadcast concerts. Later, it was used to broadcast the Freedom March, which took place after São Paulo's so-called Marijuana March experienced a crackdown by police. In 2012, PosTV did a month-long, daily broadcast before São Paulo's local elections. Altenfelder explained that digital communication methods used by Mídia Ninja not only help create new protagonists, but are a tool to support and promote "direct, participatory democracy."

But where does Mídia Ninja fit in within the world of journalism? The group never tried to be a part of that world, Altenfelder explained. Still, he noted, "journalism is alive and well," and people are hungry for information. Mídia Ninja represents an "alternate model led by a new generation of independent, autonomous, empowered communicators who no longer trust the news that's for sale." The way Mídia Ninja covers the news, Altenfelder believes, will influence mass media in the long term. The group, Altenfelder claims, "is a global embassy in this new world of possibilities."

Now Mídia Ninja is planning its next steps. The group plans to expand PosTV's activities and increase the number of ninja collaborators. It also will launch a website, which will feature blogs by traditional journalists and act as a communication hub for other citizen journalist initiatives. "We're pretty optimistic," Altenfelder said. With the expansion of the middle class, more people are empowered, which expands people's abilities to reflect critically on the world around them. "There's no going back now," he noted.

– Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com

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