Journalists report workplace harassment, constraints and censorship at Brazil's public communication company

  • By
  • September 27, 2022

*By Rubens Valente

Originally published by Agência Pública.

Sixteen journalists from Brazil’s public communication company (EBC, by its Portuguese acronym) handed in written statements describing humiliating situations taking place in the company on a daily basis, since the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president. Among them are workplace harassment, censorship, a climate of fear due to persecution at work, devaluation, and a lack of dialogue.

Of a total of 35 signed and written statements delivered to an EBC internal inquiry commission – to which Agência Pública had access – 15 have reports of this kind. When asked last Wed. Sept. 14 to explain these reports, the company responded with only one sentence: "No comments from EBC."

The employees' testimonies were attached to an investigation opened by EBC against  journalist Kariane Costa. She was hired after taking a civil service examination in 2012 and elected in 2016 and 2021 by her colleagues in the newsroom as the employees' representative on the Board of Directors of the state-owned company.

After receiving numerous complaints with similar content from her colleagues, Costa reported them to the EBC Ombudsman in 2021 and asked for an investigation. However, she quickly went from being a whistleblower to the object of an investigation under the accusation of 12 managers, precisely the same ones she asked to be investigated. They asked for Costa to be sanctioned for alleged "attacks." Six of them filed a criminal complaint against Costa before Brazil’s Justice System. On Aug. 18, the commission suggested that Costa be fired. The final decision will be up to EBC's CEO, publicist Glen Lopes Valente.

"There was no offense on the part of Ms. Kariane [Costa], who acted in strict compliance with her legal duty. The complaint was not an attack on the managers, but a request for an investigation of the numerous complaints she received," the journalist's lawyer, Tuane Farias, from Advocacia Riedel, wrote for the defense presented to the EBC commission.

In a meeting held on Sept. 5, the Labor Prosecutor's Office advised EBC "the immediate suspension of all disciplinary administrative proceedings against employees who have reported to the company or to the Judiciary possible situations of workplace harassment”. The meeting was attended by representatives of EBC, the company's employee commission, the Union of [Brazilian] Professional Journalists of the Federal District and the Union of Workers in Broadcasting and Television Companies of the Federal District.

The labor prosecutors Caroline Pereira Mercante and Andrea da Rocha Carvalho Godim want the lawsuits to be suspended in order to analyze whether EBC is breaching a court rule issued by the Regional Labor Court of the 10th Region. Last March, the court condemned EBC for workplace harassment and imposed a fine of 200,000 reais [$US 39,000 dollars] for "collective moral damages." It also ordered EBC to establish communication channels to receive and process complaints of this kind under secrecy and without the complainant suffering retaliation, among other measures.

“Vertical upward workplace harassment”

In the complaint filed with the Commission of Inquiry, Costa's defense mentioned that another area of the EBC, the Correction Sector, issued a technical note that acknowledged: "There is prevalent evidence of irregularities related to i) possible harassment by Dijor [journalism directors] managers."

Later, when the commission finished its evaluation, it stated that there had been no harassment on the part of the managers towards the employees, but quite the opposite: that of Costa against them. The commission said the following: "Vertical upward workplace harassment, by means of indirect actions carried out by the defendant against her managers."

Costa’s defense pointed out that an eventual punishment of the journalist "will contribute to a scenario of discouragement and fear regarding the demands of civil servants to the Ombudsman, the Ethics Council or the Corrections Office, because they will no longer feel safe about the institutional response to legitimate complaints within the proper institutional framework.”

Costa's defense attached her colleagues’ 35 statements to show that, contrary to what the current managers of the company claim, she always had a good relationship and was praised by her colleagues, including former chiefs who had editing and reporter coordinator positions. When writing about Costa, many of the journalists, who will be identified here by numbers so that their identities are preserved, also provided details about a stifling environment at the EBC.

Journalist One said she contacted Costa in September 2021 to have her case reported to EBC management. She has been a permanent employee at EBC for more than 14 years and since then has held various positions, such as special reporter, chief of staff, and head of reporting. In 2020 and 2021, she attended a master's course in documentary filmmaking in a country with a leftist government. In July 2021, she was elected as a representative of the EBC Employee Commission. Two months later, she was transferred from her department "arbitrarily," without consultation, "without any conversation or dialogue."

"Arbitrary transfers that do not take into consideration the employee's aptitudes have become customary at EBC. Persecution of employees who question current management or who hold leadership positions, whether unionized or not, has also intensified," the journalist said. She was promised a vacancy in another department, but her transfer was vetoed. A person from outside the company was then hired to fill that position.

"Unfortunately, the practice of harassment and persecution has become commonplace at EBC. The company, even with an unfavorable court decision on the matter, continues to opt for this form of management," the journalist wrote.

Journalists treated as "subversives”

Journalist Two, who works in EBC's radio journalism branch, said she suffered problems since at least 2015, at the end of Dilma Rousseff’s government ("The articles I wrote were changed during editing with different information from what I had found"). But the situation worsened in 2017, already during Michel Temer’s government, when she was diagnosed with a health problem during pregnancy. Even with the need for restrictions pointed out by doctors, she was sent to cover stories outside the newsroom ("I often heard that pregnancy was not a disease and that other colleagues had worked until the last day of pregnancy performing a reporter’s duties").

In 2019, when she was pregnant for the third time, already during the Bolsonaro government, she experienced "similar situations regarding demands for performance." She and her colleagues "started to receive orders not to disclose certain information”. “We started to report on very relevant subjects through news briefs in the newspapers (when a subject was not being treated with due importance)."

On one occasion, Two said, “I refused to tape a censored report.” The text was about the increase of deforestation in the Amazon. "The criteria in radio journalism for reporting on a subject became whether it would please or not please the President. We suffered veiled pressure [to] be careful with the texts, so they wouldn't close the EBC – the main argument to justify censorship."

"On the other hand, on the agenda were increasingly topics that pleased the government and that clearly should be dealt with in the institutional arm of the company. Colleagues who were more incisive on the issue of maintaining the mission of public communication and on reporting on relevant issues that had been put aside were treated as subversives.”

The journalist also said that she witnessed “colleagues being removed from their usual coverage.” This was the case of Costa herself, "removed from the Planalto Palace [the official workplace of Brazil’s president], with the justification that reporters would rotate, which never happened.” "Since the current government took over, the coverage became more and more sensitive and points of tension [subjects that may cause friction] were always removed."

Journalist Three, who has worked for more than seven years at EBC, wrote that "the situation of harassment and censorship in radio journalism is widespread, happening in all local branches [cities where EBC has offices]."

"The history of censorship in EBC journalism – and also in radio journalism – is extensive. I personally had several clashes with management because of this during the pandemic. Everything that was in any way sensitive for the government was vetoed, creating a lot of frustration. It is important to note that I was pregnant during this period.”

When she returned from maternity leave, the journalist found out that she had been transferred from reporting to production. "They’d rather leave me out in the cold, than keep me in editorial, where I fought daily against censorship attempts. [...] No one was transferred to that vacancy when I left, which shows I was a victim of persecution. What was at stake was to get me out of reporting because I was constantly fighting against censorship," Three said.

Journalist Four said that he has also been elected as an employee representative to the Board of Directors, but never suffered persecution as Costa did. He said that "he brought complaints about harassment to the attention of EBC numerous times from 2015 to 2020."

Journalist Five said that Costa's removal from the National Congress coverage was "one of the first and successive actions that I witnessed of a long process of curtailing Kariane [Costa]'s duty and right to inform. It's been almost four years that the curtailment – the censorship – has been present in EBC’s daily life."

"Just like Kariane [Costa], I also lived through this routine. I have lost count of the number of cases in which my work was censored because the facts displeased the managers’ ideological line. Police violence, the handling of the Covid pandemic, and the economic crisis are some of the topics that became taboo during this period," Five said.

She discovered by chance, in an exchange of messages in a WhatsApp group, that her name was "banned from coverage of topics considered sensitive." "I had already heard about this interdiction around the company, but this was explicit and documented."

Journalist was persecuted after "uncomfortable question" to the Ministry of Health

Several testimonials cite the case of journalist Gésio Passos, who suddenly "started covering absolutely irrelevant topics." This happened, according to several testimonies, after he "questioned the Ministry of Health about the health qualifications of the military personnel who were taking on positions at the Ministry," journalist Five said.

Journalist Six said that Passos "only received unimportant, irrelevant coverage assignments, of topics that, at most, should be done by an intern." According to the journalist, it was all because of an "uncomfortable question" that Gésio "asked [former] Minister [Eduardo] Pazuello's team" at the Ministry of Health. Journalist Seven said that the journalists' social media profiles were being "watched," because he heard from a boss that Passos could not work on the coverage of the Planalto Palace "because he had made posts in opposition to the current government."

Six, who was also a union leader, said that he "refused to tape a censored story" based on "the EBC Journalism Manual, the EBC Code of Ethics, and the Code of Ethics of Brazilian journalists.” He had a "conduct adjustment term" imposed against him, which in practice, "would prevent me from speaking out against censorship, even during this year's electoral process.”

The journalist said staff meetings ended "after reporters questioned the absence of coverage on [Brazil's grim] milestone of 400,000 deaths caused by the coronavirus and suggested a special coverage on the 500,000 victims.” At the request of two coordinators, Six said, “the subject was left for another meeting, which never took place. The team understood this attitude as a serious instance of censorship on a subject of public interest. Only with the return to fully face-to-face work, at the end of last year, did we have staff meetings again, but only once a week.”

Journalist Seven said that " journalism’s daily routine is tense when coverage involves the federal government. The instances of censorship vary from cutting out excerpts or important news stories that are not even followed through. It is common to try to negotiate some important part of the text, which is simply cut under the excuse of 'text size'."

Another journalist, who held a management position, said that she witnessed several times a woman in a high management position "referring to employees as lazy, terrorists and stupid.”

Journalist Seven, who has been working in journalism for 17 years, said that it was "an experience that I have never had before in any other communication company where I have worked.” At one point during the Covid-19 pandemic, she questioned in a WhatsApp work group the absence of coverage on the 400,000 dead mark. From then on, she suffered "a series of personal attacks from the bosses present in the group," she said.

"At that moment at EBC, there was a wave of transfers against the will of employees from various departments and also retaliations of the most diverse kinds. Many of these colleagues were [...] directors of the journalists' union. Also, in the other cases, the people transferred had also questioned the editorial content in some way or had been granted a remote work regime by court decision."

At some point, as journalists stated, one of the managers learned that colleagues were saying that she was perpetrating workplace harassment on her subordinates. After that, she "kept calling all reporters and asking if she was harassing us, clearly putting pressure on us. I was very embarrassed," one journalist said.

The abrupt transfers, another journalist said, occurred "in absentia in other departments of the company, which created a ‘witch hunt’ atmosphere among colleagues.”

“The disagreements were motivated, most of the time, by the bosses' refusal to let a reporter cover a certain topic, giving priority to cold issues (that hadn’t happened that day) or to commemorative dates.”