June 30, 2020

Independent Brazilian media bridge gaps left by the government and ensure access to reliable information during the Covid-19 crisis

Media groups and agencies that are part of the PAJor project, promoted by Reporters without Borders (RSF), multiply efforts to cover the crisis and demonstrate, in practice, the role of journalism in ensuring the right to health and information.

With its plural coverage, Amazônia Real, Rede Wayuri, Ação Comunitária Caranguejo Uçá, Marco Zero Conteúdo, Data_labe, Fala Roça, Alma Preta and Nós, mulheres da periferia are amplifying ignored voices during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their actions in Brazilian peripheries and information deserts have been crucial in emphasizing for the mainstream media and for society as a whole the need for a less short-sighted understanding of the crisis the country's going through.

A sort of myopia evidenced in this testimony of Maria Aparecida, 36, to journalist Semayat Oliveira, from Nós, Mulheres da Periferia: "As far back as I can remember, water has been lacking in my neighborhood". A resident of Mauá, city in the greater São Paulo, Maria spoke to the media outlet after posting a video on Instagram echoing the following question: "How do we prevent a disease like this if we don't even have water to drink, let alone wash our hands?!”. Since the first records of Covid-19 in the country, this question has hovered over 35 million Brazilians who do not receive piped and treated water in their homes, according to a survey carried out by Guilherme Soares Dias and Simone Freire, from Alma Preta news agency.

Only a minority of the population has the privilege to prevent coronavirus in Brazil. The current context is tragic: records of over 1,000 deaths per day were frequent during the month of June. The government's action has been disastrous. While the Ministry of Health remains without an official minister, since May 15 to the present day, economic relief packages are insufficient. The day-to-day life of the majority of the population during the pandemic is marked by unemployment, or inability to guarantee income; by the lack of clear and reliable information; and by the scarcity of rights as basic as access to water, as stressed by Débora Britto in this report by Marco Zero Conteúdo.

Just 3 days after the official record of the first death by Covid-19 in Brazil, on March 16, the unequal reality experienced by Maria - and by the thousands of residents of areas lacking state assistance - was opened wide by a public letter signed by independent media groups working on the outskirts of the largest Brazilian cities:

"The government and several organizations recommend social isolation as the main means of preventing the disease. This is not allowed in our reality! (...) We, media activists from the peripheries, from various parts of the country, are joining efforts to collaborate with accurate information that can really reach our people. We need to know how to inform our children, our youth, our elderly, our parents, mothers, and family members. From us to our own".

The birth of the #coronanasperiferias network

The letter acted as the launch of a great coverage, made by hundreds of people, which shed light on issues hitherto ignored by the mainstream media. Under the hashtag #coronanasperiferias, the collectives started to fill the gaps left by the municipal, state and federal governments. 

Upon realizing that one of the first symptoms of Covid-19 in the peripheries would be food insecurity, groups such as Ação Comunitária Caranguejo Uçá responded immediately with joint efforts that donated thousands of minimum expenditure baskets. Besides providing food, hygiene kits and face masks donations, the network also produced virtual maps to help citizens locate social assistance actions. 

Aside from that, focus on the primary mission of informing remained strong. The network's teams, generally lean, have been working hard to remedy the lack of access to comprehensible and reliable information about and tailored to their communities. Fala Roça newspaper, for example, decided to make its own count of coronavirus cases in Rocinha, a favela located in Rio de Janeiro and known as the largest in Brazil. In a scoop, journalist Michel Silva revealed the plans of the mayor of Rio de Janeiro to install a tomograph purchased with public money on the land of an evangelical church.

By bringing to light the peripheries' perspective, these media are putting on the national agenda a series of other crises that add to the health turmoil. For instance, having to study on distance education platforms when you don't have a computer or wifi at home. This is the situation described by Mayara Nascimento, student, in this report by Elena Wesley from Data_labe. In tune with other peripheral media groups, Data_labe took part in the discussion about the need to postpone the national exam that gives access to the main public Brazilian universities.

Chaos coverage in the Amazon region 

Expanding journalistic coverage of the country's north region is Amazônia Real's mission and it has been an even harder challenge in times of pandemic. The media outlet has been repeatedly denouncing the lack of ICU beds and minimal care facilities in the Amazon region, which was the first in the country to see its local health systems collapse. 

The agency's reports are revealing the obstacles indigenous peoples face to protect themselves against the coronavirus and, thus, are acting as a channel for specific public policies claims. "For me, Covid-19 is no different from smallpox, measles, flu and mumps, which killed many of my brothers. We don't want another genocide”, said Crisanto Rudzö Tseremey'wá, of the Xavante ethnic group. This kind of testimony, given to reporter Marcio Camilo, hardly ever finds place in traditional media, which rarely considers indigenous voices.

Rede Wayuri, on its turn, meets another basic demand, also usually neglected by mainstream media: the reporting of news and events in their native languages. The media outlet operates in the São Gabriel da Cachoeira region, a city 850 kilometers far from Manaus, capital of Amazonas state. The boat trip to get there is made in the Negro River and can last up to 4 days. 

To inform the 750 communities in the region about the risks posed by the coronavirus and about ways to prevent Covid-19, Rede Wayuri members are producing audio bulletins, which are broadcast on the  radio, the internet, and even by sound cars.

About  PAJor project

PAJor brings together 8 independent Brazilian media groups: Amazônia Real and Rede Wayuri from Amazonas state; Ação Comunitária Caranguejo Uçá and Marco Zero Conteúdo, from Pernambuco state; Data_labe and Fala Roça, from Rio de Janeiro;  Alma Preta and Nós, mulheres da periferia, from São Paulo.

Started in February 2020, the project will last 3 years and its main objective is to contribute to the strengthening of these media outlets as organizations. Following a logic of collaboration, PAJor will support each group in the development of digital and physical security protocols. Individualized workshops will be held, focusing on institutional development and financial sustainability. The freedom of speech debate will run through the project, by the holding of talks and conferences on the theme. The program will also promote exchanges between participating media and support the production of collaborative stories.

PAJor is part of Defending Voices, an international initiative developed in partnership with Reporters Without Borders Germany (Reporter ohne Grenzen) and financed by the German Ministry of Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung - BMZ). Defending Voices also includes a branch in Mexico organized by Propuesta Cívica, which aims to reverse practices and regulatory frameworks that violate press freedom in the country, and will seek justice and compensation for the harm done to journalists and family members who are victims of human rights violations.