Brazilian newspaper creates "war" section to cover violence in Rio and is criticized by security experts

"Mom, I can’t take this war anymore," a 10-year-old girl said in an audio interview published by newspaper Extra from Rio de Janeiro. The child is a resident of Manguinhos, a favela in the North Zone of the city with daily armed confrontations.

The word that was already used informally by locals who live in risky areas has become part of the official discourse of Grupo Globo's daily newspaper. On Aug. 16, Extra created the section 'Guerra do Rio' (Rio’s War) to report “everything that escapes the standard of normal civilization, and that we only see in Rio," according to the editorial that launched the initiative. “Homicides, robberies, sex crimes,” violations common in all large cities, will still be reported on in the usual pages of the paper.

However, the decision sparked controversy and was criticized by journalists and public security experts. Two weeks after the announcement, the decision is still the subject of public debate.

The Brazilian Armed Forces themselves – which have been carrying out an operation in Rio de Janeiro since July 28 – deny the existence of a war. In a recent interview with Estadão, Armed Forces spokesman Colonel Roberto Itamar Cardoso Plump said the use of the term is "exaggeration by the media."

"The truth is that anything that happens in Rio, sometimes of lesser gravity, ends up resounding for Brazil and for the world," Plump said, according to Estadão. "It seems that Rio de Janeiro is experiencing a war – and it's not like that. This image of war is an exaggeration of the media, it does not correspond to reality."

After the statement, Extra published a cover story referring to an official propaganda film of the federal government which, according to the newspaper, "reinforces prejudice by prescribing war as a solution for poor communities."

The announcement of the decision to create the new section of the newspaper ran the entire front page of Extra’s Aug. 16 edition, including the headline: "It's War" and the unveiling of a confidential document from the Secretariat of Security that maps 843 areas of Rio de Janeiro dominated by armed groups, known as "illegally controlled territories". The ten most violent regions total 8.8 square miles "where the Brazilian Constitution is worthless," writes the author, journalist Rafael Soares.

The report chosen to inaugurate the section was a result of a five-month project from Soares. "This document is confidential, I could not even get it through the Access to Information Law," Soares told the Knight Center. "We cover so many cases of violence that we create some resistance. I try to break this banalization and show the drama that the city experiences with shocking numbers. I had no idea [about the number of illegally controlled areas], such a study has never been done. "

The word 'war' was already used occasionally in outlets such as O Globo, Época, UOL, El País and O Dia to metaphorically describe violence in Rio de Janeiro. In Extra, the use of the vocabulary to name a whole section, became a position: "it was the way we found to shout: this not normal! It is the option we have not to let our journalistic gaze accommodate barbarism," the editorial reads.

"Assault takes place anywhere in the world, but a stray bullet hitting a baby inside the mother's belly does not happen anywhere in the world. The situations have gone far beyond what’s normal," assistant editor Giampaolo Braga, who is responsible for coordinating the Guerra do Rio coverage, told the Knight Center. "There was a naturalization of the reader. When you have the first child killed by stray bullet, there’s a great commotion. But when it reaches the thousandth, we cannot think it is normal.”

In order to promote a change in the daily violence of the city, Extra and O Globo organized the seminar 'Reage, Rio!' (React, Rio!) on Aug. 30 and 31 to discuss solutions to the crisis in the state on topics such as security, urban mobility and economy. On Sept. 3, the main debates were published in special editions in both newspapers.

Soares clarified, however, that the reporters' position remains neutral. "The journalist seeks a critical position on what is happening. We are looking for information that can improve the debate," the reporter said.

Reports that fit the newspaper's war concept have gained space on pages with stylized graphic design. Examples of "Rio War" stories include the execution of the 100th military police officer killed this year in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the mega-operation of the Armed Forces in Rio de Janeiro favelas and even the case of a dog shot during a shootout.

"Putting all the police material on the same page ended up putting it in a smaller space that should have more prominence. We make a daily effort to escape banalization,” Braga explained.

The editorial said that more than special pages, what has changed is also the "way to look, interpret and recount what is happening around us." "There is no change in the way of looking, but in the way of analyzing. Before, they were situations that were separate throughout the edition. The section allows us to give a broader view on the violence in Rio," Braga summarized.

However, for the four reporters working on public security coverage at Extra, the only change, Soares said, was the expansion of space – what once yielded one page in print today occupies three.

"This was interesting for our work and generated a fundamental debate," Soares said, adding: "In recent years we have been working on a human rights beat and we will continue to do so. It's a position I and other reporters have. We continue with the work of giving faces and voices to the victims of violence."

For the launch of the section, the newspaper makes a kind of prior defense by stating that "the discourse of war, when misrepresented, serves to cover up the truculence of the police firing first and asking later." The text concludes: Extra defends a war, "based on intelligence, on combating police corruption, and targeting not the civilian population, but the economic power of mafias and all their articulations."

"Creating a war section after 30 years of living in Rio de Janeiro newspapers and focusing on the police is a feeling of defeat. To reach this stage is not pride, it is a failure. Extra must be the only newspaper on the planet that has a war section in a country that does not recognize the war," the newspaper's editorial director, Octavio Guedes, said in a release video.

Criticism and controversy

The premiere of 'Rio’s War' was received with controversy by the press and public security experts. The main point that critics raise is that the positioning legitimizes possible abuses of the use of force and violations of human rights from the State.

"[The word war] in informal conversation, not a problem, it’s fine – but when it gets official tones, a dangerous lid is opened, far beyond a mere semantic question. The war provides total surrender or extermination of the enemy, and eventual sacrifice of innocents in the name of the goal. Laws change, individual rights are revoked. The daily lives of the entire population – not just one part – change profoundly," wrote journalist Aydano André Motta in Projeto Colabora.

Journalist specializing in public security, Cecília Olliveira said that the creation of the section endorses a failed security policy. In an article for The Intercept Brazil, she cited a study from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that points to a reciprocal relationship between State and the press in favor of a common worldview that feeds the fear and insecurity of the population.

In that sense, Olliveira recalled that the Military Police of the State of Rio expressed thanks for the new section of the newspaper via Twitter. For her, this means taking a direction contrary to fulfilling the role of the press, which proposes to monitor power and not endorse State discourse.

"The governmental discourse is reproduced in the newspapers. When you assume it's a war, you ignore a lot of factors that have happened," Olliveira told the Knight Center. "You ignore the lack of planning in public security, the lack of investment in intelligence, corruption and money diverted under the government of Sérgio Cabral [former governor of Rio, who has been arrested on corruption charges] and the various reasons for the violence."

Another point of disagreement is in relation to the precise use of the term "war." In 2008, journalist João Paulo Charleaux wrote that the context of Brazilian violence does not fit the legal or humanitarian definition. From the point of view of the law, war "is an armed conflict between the armed forces of two or more countries," Charleaux wrote. On the humanitarian side, the state of war is defined by the Geneva Convention of 1949, in which some human rights are reduced and the prerogative of the lethal use of force is amplified.

"Quality journalism should therefore ensure the correct use of this term as much as it does in the sports section, since no one calls a fault committed outside the penalty area a penalty," wrote Charleaux. He also wrote an article for news site Nexo summarizing the two sides of the debate.

Founder of Agência de Notícias da Favela, André Fernandes, understands another definition of war. For him, it is the daily brutality police that slum dwellers have lived for years. "The police [...] enter the favelas in a disorganized way and always kill innocents. There is no intelligence and, yes, a lot of brutality in the police operations that have taken place since day 11 at Jacarezinho [...]," he wrote.

In a report for El País, journalist María Martin writes: "Among the virtual discussions, for and against, another question has arisen: what happens in Rio has no name."

But for Olliveira, the question is not to find a defining term, but rather to understand that to generalize the situation of Rio in only one concept means to oversimplify.

"When you call it war, you simplify and simplify it incorrectly. It can not be simplified, because the situation in Rio is not simple," she said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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