How to cover anti-democratic extremism in Brazil

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  • January 27, 2023

*By Rafael Gloria, originally published on the IJNet's website

On Jan. 8, thousands of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's far-right supporters stormed three federal buildings in Brasília: the Supreme Court, the Planalto Palace presidential office, and the National Congress.

Following the events, the International Journalism Network (IJNet) gathered advice from several journalists on how to cover the events and individuals that threatened Brazil’s democracy earlier this month.

Cover of Folha de S.Paulo newspaper of the January 10, 2023 edition

Turn to experts

When covering the far right, it is important to quote sources that are experts on the topic. “People linked to academia, who are acknowledged by their peers in their field of study, and also experts in interpreting the phenomenon,” are ideal sources said Odilon Neto, a historian and manager at the Observatory of the Extreme Right in Brazil.

Neto stressed that reporting on the far right should always be carried out seriously, and leave no room for mistakes. “Right-wing extremism can’t be used as clickbait,” he said.

Call it like it is

There is little consensus around appropriate terminology to use for people who are part of extremist groups and commit acts of extremism. Journalists should carefully consider the language they use, and ensure it doesn't help normalize anti-democratic behavior.

Political motivations cannot be separated from the actions of January 8th, said Amanda Lima, a commentator at CNN Portugal. “These are Bolsonaro and extreme right voters. We must act in accordance with the law [when reporting], but with no relativize or easing of words,” she said. Matheus Leitão, a columnist at Veja magazine, said he’s been using the expression “members of the extreme right, led by Jair Bolsonaro” in his own reporting. Some outlets prefer using the word “terrorists” (“terrorista” in Portuguese), or “golpistas,” meaning those who attempted a coup.

Natalia Leal, head of Agência Lupa, said the demonstrations must be described as antidemocratic. “[The demonstrations] should even be [labeled as] a coup attempt, as they craved a military intervention [to oust President Lula da Silva], and there is no room for such a thing in Brazil,” she said.

Neto, meanwhile, said that there is no way to speak of “gradations of Bolsonarism.” “Bolsonarism is defined by its extremism. Bolsonaro’s track record is antidemocratic and immersed in the traditions of the Brazilian extreme right," he said.

Make use of strategic silence

Don't engage in “both sides” reporting. Instead, provide necessary context around the lies and disinformation that fuel the extremists' actions. “One of the journalism principles is that we should mirror reality. If the reality is unbalanced, we can’t talk about ‘two sides,’” Leal said. “[Journalists] should look at the facts, and based on them report on what is really happening in an objective and plural way, which doesn’t mean to be impartial.”

Historian and coordinator of the Observatory of the Extreme Right in Brazil, Odilon Neto

When covering the far right, it is important to quote sources that are experts on the topic, historian Odilon Neto, manager at the Observatory of the Extreme Right in Brazil, said. (Photo: Twitter)

There is no consensus among Brazilian journalists on whether an extremist involved in the Jan. 8 events should be interviewed. In cases when they are interviewed, however, it is paramount to refute false information. “It’s very rare to find an extremist whose discourse is coherent and free from lies. When extreme right politicians are interviewed, the interview must be firmly conducted. For example, immediately [calling out] any and all false information,” Lima said.

In many cases, it is necessary for journalists to think through what they are going to write or say, and make use of “strategic silence,” as a way to avoid giving antidemocracy a platform, said Cristina Tardáguila, senior program director at ICFJ. Tardáguila often gives advice on her Twitter page about the importance of this strategy. Recently, she tweeted: “A thought: you don’t want to make coup plotters/terrorists famous, right? So, when they are arrested, remember that these people want to exist, to become (more) popular. Every post or retweet of yours gives life to those crazies.”

The less 'he said, she said' journalism, the less disinformation

“He said, she said” journalism can lead to disinformation. “Take as an example when Bolsonaro said that Nazism was a left-wing movement. This is a historical lie and you have to treat it that way. If you are going to report on it, [write] ‘Bolsonaro lies by stating Nazism was a left-wing movement,’” Leitão said.

According to Leal, journalists should be even more cautious when relying solely on information from social media so that they are not “giving life to disinformation” on these platforms. Fact-checking should always be a journalist’s compass.

Follow the money

Immediately after the Jan. 8 developments, Agência Lupa created a database to collect and track antidemocratic content posted on social media. Anyone can submit information through this form. The fact-checking agency’s goal is to map the data, and use it for journalism, research, and to support official investigations. Less than 24 hours after the attacks, Agência Lupa had gathered more than 2,500 contributions, publishing several stories using the information submitted.

Screenshot of Agencia Lupa website.

Agência Lupa has created a database to collect anti-democratic posts. (Photo: Screenshot of Agência Lupa website)

“Follow the money” is a tried and true motto. “We identified several pieces of data from Pix [an instant payment system in Brazil] and the cell phone numbers of funders. Going after who owns the money helps to give dimension to these acts,” Leal said. It is also important to look at sponsored disinformation on social media platforms and messaging apps, like Telegram and WhatsApp.

Stay safe on the ground

When reporting on the ground, travel in groups, Leitão said. “I always connect with photojournalist colleagues, for example," he said. "I’m always with coworkers experienced in at-risk reporting. They've already saved my life."

Daniel Giovanaz, project coordinator at Reporters Without Borders in Brazil, mentioned two especially helpful resources available for journalists engaging in dangerous coverage:

Beware of online hostility

The internet, and social media especially, can be home to intense conversations and disputes, and journalists can find themselves attacked in these spaces.

Journalists can also make use of "strategic silence" by not responding to attacks on social media, which can prevent hate and disinformation from spreading. Other journalists prefer to block haters and trolls. “I block [people on social media] and report the page when [the attacks] are more serious, like death or rape threats,” Lima said.

This Digital Safety Kit from the Committee to Protect Journalists is one essential resource journalists can use to help safeguard their online presence.