Brasil de Fato: 20 years of popular communication and struggle for democracy

megaloterias

It was January 2003. Brazil celebrated Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (Workers’ Party) first electoral victory. In Argentina, Nestor Kirchner was getting prepared to win his first presidential tenure following the neoliberal economic disaster. In Bolivia, Evo Morales’ Movimento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, in English) and its cocaleros were getting stronger in a country that, a few months later, would see its streets flooded by protests against the privatization of natural gas, in an episode known as “The Gas War”. The United States pushed the international community to support the invasion of Iraq, which would take place two months later.

Meanwhile, in the city of Porto Alegre, south of Brazil, 100,000 people gathered for the third edition of the World Social Forum, between January 23 and 28. It was on Saturday, 25, that 7,000 of them crowded the Araújo Viana Auditorium, at Farroupilha Park, in a historic event: the launch of Brasil de Fato (BdF), a pioneering journalistic initiative organized by Brazilian popular movements.

The opening discussion shows the importance of that moment: it was attended by people like the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano; Cuban doctor Alieda Guevara (Che’s daughter); American linguist Noam Chomsky; Argentinian activist Hebe de Bonafini, leader of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo; photographer Sebastião Salgado; and theologian Leonardo Boff, among other personalities of the national and international leftist movement.

The first editor to head the project, journalist and professor José Arbex (Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo), recalls the enthusiasm of that day. “It was a very impressive thing: 7,000 people inside a hall and many others out the place, watching [the discussion] on big screens. An amazing thing. I approached Stédile [João Pedro, leadership of the Landless Workers Movement, also known as MST] and said ‘Wow, that’s happening!’. Everybody was very excited.”

El primer editor que lideró el proyecto, el periodista y profesor de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP) José Arbex recuerda la emoción del día. “Fue una cosa impresionante. 7 mil personas dentro de la sala y otras tantas afuera, viéndolo en la gran pantalla. Una cosa tremenda. Me acerqué a Stedile [João Pedro, líder del Movimiento de los Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra] y le dije ‘esto parece que marcha, eh’. Todos estaban entusiasmados”, recuerda. 

A popular point of view

The idea was creating a printed newspaper to be sold in newsstands all around the country, distributing 100,000 copies to “compete with the biggest newspapers”, Arbex said. That is, Brasil de Fato would be a democratic and popular newspaper presenting the perspective of popular and leftist movements to Brazilian society, disputing the interpretation of political facts with the traditional media.

“But it wasn’t conceived to be a partisan newspaper. It should be broad, presenting the most diverse views and dealing with day-to-day matters,” Arbex explains.

“Ahora bien, no se suponía que fuera un periódico partidario. Debería ser amplio, traer las más diversas tendencias dentro del periódico y tratar temas del día a día”, explica Arbex.


José Arbex, the first editor of Brasil de Fato, during the launch of the project / Leonardo Melgarejo

One of the project’s creators, João Pedro Stédile, a historic leader of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST, in Portuguese), says that the idea came from a “long-standing challenge for the left and popular movements, which is the need of having our own media outlet, our own mass communication outlet and not depend exclusively on the media outlets controlled by other social classes that transmit their world view.”

Today, journalist Nina Fideles heads the project. She became part of MST communication team in 2003 as a press officer and soon had to face the complicated scenario of the Parliamentary Land Inquiry Commission (CPI da Terra, in Portuguese). Created to debate the land structure in Brazil and propose an agrarian reform model to reduce rural violence, the commission was intensely attacked by politicians linked to the agribusiness caucus against rural movements, particularly MST.

“It’s interesting because that was precisely the period when Brasil de Fato was created. And it’s interesting because it was born out of circumstances and demands for a popular project to gain more visibility. It was a moment in which [social and popular] movements were being intensely attacked due to the CPI da Terra, which included only the rural movements, an emblematic sign that there was an ongoing attack on the popular project in Brazil. Then comes this historical moment: the creation of a media outlet that could put certain agendas in the spotlight and challenge narratives.”

Unique experience

The discussions to build BdF happened throughout 2002 and were “rich, collective and long,” according to Stédile. “We realized that society was changing. The possibility of Lula being elected was real. But there wasn’t any leftist newspaper, radio or TV channel for us to engage in this struggle,” he recalls.

Discussions started in 2002 in a national collective that met every month. The group included representatives of popular movements, trade unions, political parties and leftist organizations, besides key journalists of the alternative press such as the late Alípio Freire and Vito Giannotti.

“It was over 50 people, for sure,” says Stédile. They created “conditions, sought support and funds. We even organized raffles, dinners etc. Everything was discussed collectively and the consensual decisions were put into practice.

According to media researcher Matheus Pismel, this organic connection with popular movements since the very beginning made the project have unique characteristics. Pismel holds a master’s degree in Communication with a thesis about Brasil de Fato.

Brasil de Fato is a quite unique experience. I think it is a consequence of the recognition of MST achievements. Along with Lula’s election, the movement was an organization that could be pivotal in the making of a newspaper for the leftist field. Plus, MST is incomparable in Latin America, as well as in the western world as a popular movement,” he states.

Popular committees

According to the original project written by the collective, BdF would have the following staff:

an editorial director and a coordinator “to propose topics”, heading three editors and three reporters writing for the Brazil, International and Culture/Sports sections. All they would be supported by a newsroom’s secretary. For the visual work, an art editor and “an artist for publishing”.

These eleven people would be working in a central newsroom based in São Paulo, and had to organize a “network of correspondents and regional/local contributors,” the document reads. “It will be a challenge to organize the regional newsrooms, which will provide us with information, articles etc. and distribute the newspaper throughout Brazil.”

A pretty hard task. The way it was attacked shows the influence of the movements’ approach: grassroots organization and militancy.

“The original idea was forming popular committees to which people would contribute sharing news stories and articles, even though they weren’t media professionals,” Arbex explains. “So, you live in a certain neighborhood and then something newsworthy happens, such as a racist case, a police confrontation, an art and book fair, a poetry event… The idea was for you to go to the local newspaper committee and send the article for us to publish.”


Argentinian leadership Hebe de Bonafini reads Brasil de Fato’s launch edition / Leonardo Melgarejo

If the logistical difficulties of a project of this scale would already be big today, imagine it at a time when the internet was taking its first steps in the country. To give you an idea, according to a Network Wizards survey, in January 2003 there were 22.4 million internet users in Brazil – of these, only 1.1 million had a broadband connection, according to the study Brazil Broadband Markets and Technologies 2004, by IDC Brazil.

For comparison, in 2021, 155.7 million people were accessing the internet in the country, according to the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD, in Portuguese), being that 90 percent of Brazilian households had access to the internet.

Accessing the internet on your cell phone wasn’t possible. The 3G technology spread through the country only in 2004. Back then, the cell phone models available on the market were barely familiar to those we know today. In 2003, that which is the best-selling cell phone model of all time was launched: Nokia 1100. It had a pixelated screen and the user could make voice calls, send texts, display the hour – and that’s all. The first smartphone model, already with more functions, was launched in Brazil only in 2008 by Apple.

Before the internet became popular, “it wasn’t easy to build an alternative media outlet,” says Arbex. “There were community radios, but they were hunted down by the Federal Police. Militants who started community radio stations were threatened with arrest.”

“We even organized some meetings with the newspaper’s popular committees. I remember an amazing meeting in the city of Belo Horizonte. Among the participants, there were neighborhood grocery store owners, teachers, students and sex workers who put forward some topics,” he says.

Boycott

To produce the content published by BdF was just one of the problems. The newspaper also needed to be printed and, which was even more challenging, be on newsstands throughout a country of continental proportions.

And that’s when the newspaper faced a serious problem: a corporate boycott.

Back then, few companies distributed printed publications on newsstands nationally. The first attempt of the collective was to hire one of these companies and propose an ordinary commercial relationship.

“The negotiations were going well. But then they asked, ‘Listen, we distribute to 36,000 newsstands all over the country. How many newsstands do you want us [to distribute BdF]?’. We said that about 9,000 – that is, 25 percent of their total capacity – would be ok. They said ok too. The agreement was to be signed”, says Arbex.

“Then they asked, ‘Hold on, hold on. Who edits this newspaper?’. When we began to talk about the organizations involved in the project, particularly MST, they suddenly found out that the operation would not be economically viable. But how come, since everything was alright till recently? What has changed all of a sudden? Of course, they wouldn’t talk about it, but what changed was they found out that social organizations, MST in particular, were the ones leading the project.”

After this episode, the movements found an alternative: a distributor company born from the partnership of two large newspapers. The document was signed and the movement paid the market price. But the company did not fulfill the agreement.

Arbex tells that the first sign he received about something going wrong was during an activity at the Santos Port Workers Union. He had been invited to discuss Brazil’s political situation. During the debate, one of the participants asks “Why is Brasil de Fato not arriving at Santos?”.

“I said ‘What? It’s arriving at Santos. This city is among our priorities.’ The man insisted, ‘No, it’s not’. Then I said ‘Wait, maybe the newsstand you went to is not receiving the newspaper, but it is available at other newsstands.’ Then a lot of people started raising their hands. ‘No, no. The first edition arrived, the second edition arrived, but the third one didn’t.’ Then the alarm went off, you know?”, he recalls.

Upon checking, they discovered the same problem in Rio de Janeiro, Florianópolis and other cities. “The newspaper was not arriving [at these cities], although it was reported to us that it was being distributed. It helps to see the fallacy of saying there is democracy in Brazil, [there is] freedom of expression. There is freedom of expression if you have money to pay for it. If you don’t have money… And if you’re not the enemy, you know?” he concludes.

Responding popular demands

Facing a lack of resources and political impasses between different leftist groups, the original project changed. From a daily publication, the newspaper became a weekly publication. It later switched to regionally produced, free-distributed tabloids.

Brasil de Fato launched a website that has been breaking audience records, surpassing 11 million views in a single month in 2022. It adopted the MST experience with radios and now produces content that is rebroadcast by 280 community and educational radio stations across the country. It has a video production team that develops its own programs and made partnerships with other broadcasters. Plus, launched official accounts on social platforms, with exclusive content and an approach that fits each one of them.

Nowadays, BdF has all this expertise and produces content tailored to multiple platforms – and does all this without giving up the political proposal of sharing news about the Brazilian social and political daily life to society from the point of view of popular movements and national left. 

Social movements from Brazil and around the world can be seen on Brasil de Fato covers / Reproduction

“Today, I think that Brasil de Fato is more mature. It follows more closely the Brazilian reality than in the beginning,” says Arbex. “At that time, we like it or not, it was a newspaper made by militants predominantly for militants because the project of making a newspaper with a large circulation to be sold in newsstands did not work out. So, BdF ended up becoming a militant newspaper for [leftist] militants. To a certain extent, this weighed on the newspaper’s characteristics. However, today the newspaper has much broader possibilities.”

Nina Fideles relates this evolution with the project’s role in moving along with the demands and needs of popular movements. 

Brasil de Fato has always responded to a demand for a popular project with a tenuous intersection between the project, left-wing discussions and communication, but also with technological trends and new platforms. Today, after 20 years, we manage to consolidate our image as a media outlet, its political choices and the task of occupying all the platforms to dispute this narrative,” says Nina.

For Brazil and the world

Throughout this process, BdF were at crucial moments of the tumultuous period of Brazil’s history. From the election of the country’s first female president to the coup that ousted her. From the crime committed by the privatized company Vale in Brumadnho to the selling of Eletrobras. From the discovery of the Pre-Salt Layer to global warming. From the monthly stipend scandal dubbed Mensalão to Lula’s third presidential victory, without forgetting his illegal arrest and the Free Lula Vigil in the city of Curitiba, where he was arrested.

All the topics of the Brazilian history and the leftist discussions about them were covered in these pages, whether printed or virtual.

To Nina Fideles, this process was fundamental to the left itself, expanding the range of important issues and making “these debates gain strength among militants and movements, making people discuss this at grassroots organizations, settlements and camps.”

“The newspaper kept a dialogue with the left. At that time, Brasil de Fato got to broaden the debate from the left to the whole of the left movement. By doing so, BdF forced this group to go deeper into the debates with a more collective approach, not focusing just on one movement or another.”

Besides, BdF raised the need for the movements to debate the very role of communication. “When you create a media outlet, you kind of force the field to discuss how it will affect the communication exchanges, and then I think it has an internal role that has to do with bringing people together, call to debate, [discuss] how to use it. I think it engaged the militancy in a perspective of communication that is formative. And even today, that is a perspective of debating about the media and what is the role of communication in achieving a goal, be it agrarian reform or another project for Brazil.”

The Brasil de Fato project followed trends in digital communication, but never completely moved away from the original idea of having a printed newspaper. But instead of a national edition, the proposal was transformed.

“The idea of Brasil de Fato as a media outlet for popular movements and committed to a popular view of the world and the class struggle in Brazil was very important and necessary. At a certain point in the journey, we had to retreat to the tabloid format and regional newspapers, so that we could get support. Then we started to make local editions massive and freely distributed. This formula paid off and continues to this day in many capital cities,” says Stédile.

“La idea de Brasil de Fato como medio de comunicación de los movimientos y comprometido solo con una visión popular del mundo y de la lucha de clases en Brasil fue muy importante y necesaria. En cierto punto del camino, tuvimos que retroceder al formato de tabloides, regionales, donde era posible conseguir apoyo, y así empezamos a hacer ediciones locales, con distribución masiva, gratuita. Y esa fórmula dio resultado y permanece hasta el día de hoy en muchas capitales”, dice Stédile. 


Regional editions of Brasil de Fato are distributed for free in nine Brazilian states / Pablo Vergara

Today, regional editions are published independently by collectives in nine states: Bahia, Ceará, Distrito Federal, Minas Gerais, Paraíba, Paraná, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, and Rio Grande do Sul. Each state has its own team and means of financing, but all of them share the same editorial positions discussed over the years within the project and with popular movements.

“We, from Brasil de Fato, still believe that it’s possible to dispute narratives with the printed media. We think it’s worth mentioning the experiences developed in the Brazilian states, because then you change the printed press to something which is more regional, [therefore] closer [to readers]”, says Nina Fideles.

If, on the one hand, Brasil de Fato tried to get closer to the local daily life of people, on the other hand, it never abandoned its vision towards a globalized and increasingly complex world.

“The popular look to the class struggle in Latin America and the rest of the world has always been part of it, since the first debates the collective made, in 2002. Because just as there was a lack of popular perspective on the class struggle in Brazil, even worse were the news stories shared by the bourgeois media about what was happening in the world. So, this political will was based on a principle, but also a necessity,” says Stédile.

Since the beginning, the newspaper seeks to develop partnerships with other media outlets that shared the same values in many countries, particularly in Latin America. BdF also tried to establish a network of foreign correspondents, initially on a “voluntary and solidary basis”, as put by Stédile, and then in a professional way.

Today, the project has correspondents in Argentina, Venezuela, Russia, Cuba and the United States, in addition to partnerships with outlets from all continents.

A foreign correspondent during part of his career, Arbex considers this investment to be increasingly crucial. He quotes a phrase by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s guru and one of the leaders of the international far-right movement of which Jair Bolsonaro is a part.

“Before the elections, he used to say that Lula was the most dangerous man in the world. Why? Because what was at stake was not just Lula’s election here in Brazil. What was at stake was Brazil’s role on an international scale,” he explains.

“This means that what was at stake with Lula’s election wasn’t just Brazil, but the world. And, obviously, a newspaper that has correspondents in several countries and that manages to present this perspective is a newspaper much more capable of covering the repercussions that political facts have within the country itself. I would say that the very soul of the newspaper depends on this broad international vision. I think it’s impossible not to do it”, he argues.

The project reached a new phase because of it, by translating its context into English and Spanish. According to Nina, the issue of internationalism has always been transversal to the conception of the BdF.

“Today it perhaps gains another dimension, which is to manage translating events in Brazil to the world. I think that back then we used to look at the world. That’s why our slogan is ‘a popular vision of Brazil and the world’. We have always valued that. But today I think it gained this new layer of how we dispute a narrative internationally.”

A journalistic benchmark

Looking back to the newspaper’s 20 years of existence, Arbex considers the project as strategic for the Brazilian left, since “it is a concrete alternative compared to what the mainstream media says. It also has a history accumulated”.

“This is a crucial ‘capital’, irreplaceable from the point of view of forming a critical opinion in the country. I think that Brasil de Fato occupies a much larger place today than a mere statistical count of how many readers it has could indicate,” he argues.

Brasil de Fato is a conquest of the Brazilian workers. This is how it has to be seen, this is how it has to be defended, and this is how it has to continue to be: a heritage from and for the Brazilian workers.”

A college Professor, Arbex talks about the importance of a media outlet like BdF to demonstrate the concrete possibility of doing independent and professional journalism.

“As a university, we are proud to say that our students are being taught to work in a newspaper like Brasil de Fato, and not just conditioned to work in the mainstream press,” he comments.

“That provides us with an external reference that helps the university define the quality of its teaching from a critical position. I mean, we provide critical tools for those who also intend to work in Brasil de Fato. If this newspaper didn’t exist, what would we turn to as a reference?”

Edited by: Glauco Faria

megaloterias
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