The Peripheral Media

In 2018, I published my first book, The Internet, Politics, and Inequality in Contemporary Brazil: The Peripheral Media (Rowman & Littlefield).

The book stemmed from my PhD research but ended up with much more information and detailed analysis than the thesis. I have explored the possibilities of the alternative media in Brazil, proposing a new look into the wide range of groups covering the state of inequality in the country.

Defensorxs is one of the many short and long-length films produced by Nigeria, a group of filmmakers based in Fortaleza, Ceará. Here, they explored the work of public prosecutors who face dire conditions to denounce illegalities and threats to human rights in Brazil. Credit: Nigeria

Amidst a huge landscape of operating media producers, collectives, movements, and assemblies, I have sought to engage with media producers’ particular way of understanding what is going on. I wanted to track how they publish, as it appears on their blogs, websites, and social media.

Favela News is one of the many outlets in northeast Brazil. Credit: Snapshot Favela News website.

I listed more than 500 groups actively operating across the country. Then I reached to a sample of 50, most of which blazing the trail when it comes to reporting from all the corners from this vast country.

It is the case of Nigeria, a group of filmmakers based in Fortaleza, Ceará or Coletivo Papo Reto, from Rio de Janeiro or Favela News, producing films and multimedia in Recife. I talked to groups which were representative of more than 20 Brazilian states.

Brasil Mulher is one of the most innovative outlets in Brazil’s alternative press ecology. It has shown a poor, black woman on its cover and looked at agendas such as feminism and abortion when the country was largely conservative and these topics were often shunned by the press.

The book starts with an overview of the roots of the alternative media in Brazil.

There is an extensive body of literature on the rich past of what I considered a pattern of press for social justice. Journalists were especially prominent during the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1984.

This militant press, as they are also known, has weighed in for the consciousness of a generation of politically-committed, socially-aware journalists which continued in the field decades later. After the dictatorship ended, they flocked into the mainstream press newsrooms. But to a greater extent, the idea of a committed press and which stands by the “citizens’ rights” has hardly faded away, although without being encapsulated in just one segment.

What one finds in contemporary Brazil suggests the digital media age has largely drawn on this tradition. It has invited the participation of a fresh generation of media producers, who now count with new technological resources and live in a democratic country.

The Peripheral Media, as a concept, has offered many possibilities to increase the knowledge of this scenario. Certainly, there are many aspects which weren’t entirely covered in this book.

In any case, the book’s purpose was to start up this interest in the notion of the periphery. First, because it sheds light on aspects of media democracy not entirely present in current scholarship. Scholars and the public, in Brazil and elsewhere, have embraced the alternative media as “digital media”, but to a large extent as a blind mirror of the mainstream.

In this sense, the “peripheral” media” appears as a complex universe that involves flexible publication methods, the use of vocabulary and a code of ethics that radically differs from what one conceives as professional media. Especially if one thinks that their discourse springs from the so-called abandoned layer of citizens, and despite society’s conventional disregard to its impoverished margins. It includes the favelas, the countryside, and the cities’ outskirts, but media producers’ scope does not end at these geographies. These are landscapes which are featured in the book, but their media constructions invade and influence the mainstream and commercial media to spread these values of the periphery elsewhere.

Politicians, such as Getúlio Vargas, have used the periphery to political campaign tours, most of which based on shallow promises of life change, which turned out to promote clientelism on top of political power. Credit: FGV

This new way of presenting, discussing, and imposing the periphery on the Internet reverses a trend of marginalisation which, as I discuss, exists from society, the mainstream media and the state. In the latter, politicians have played a crucial role in using the periphery as another stage for their populist discourses, in which they threw promises of “life change”, while fuelling clientelism and weakening politics overall.

The book presents the results of in-depth and semi-structured interviews with media producers of all realities (24 of which are directly quoted in the book). They show the extent to which periphery dwellers are aware of this populist heritage and have a clear idea of how they can change it.

When asked about the space they have amidst the broader media environment, interviewees were free to explore several issues that do not come up very often. Where media democratisation is concerned, these conversations approached the process of making their media outlets with affordable tactics (and how it differs from media organisations), but the main focus was on their discourse and the ability to innovate by telling new stories, using new terms and images.

Web portals such as Voz da Comunidade have helped to place Brazilian communities’ interests at the forefront, reinforcing a positive image of its dwellers, who often fall victim of media stereotypes regarding violence and poverty. Credit: Snapshot Voz das Comunidades

Most issues of inclusion, competition, and standing out that have constrained their practice have appeared. On the one hand, media scholars have always assumed that these small-scale media groups (because of their size and reduced influence) are either a blind opposition to liberal media or that their basic motivation is to play the allies of left-wing parties at their most.

The resistance to big media conglomerates in Brazil has happened through a strong left-wing opposition to these groups’ controlling families, such as the Marinho family, that up to this day controls the Globo organisations. In many instances, activists have disrupted Globo’s live transmissions to protest its power. Peripheral websites such as Brasil 247 are nonetheless part of a minority that still privileges this type of radical activism. Most websites of this study have revealed a far more balanced stance and wish to “do it better” than disrupt Globo’s longstanding influence. Credit: Snapshot Brasil 247

Things are no longer that simple. For example, the so-called “media monopoly”, i.e. the dominance of gigantic players such as Globo Organisations, is seen as being far less important to these groups prominence, different from what many scholars used to believe. The degree of innovation, independence, and audacity of these producers is surprisingly high and sourced from their community activities, influence from professionalised media, cinema, among other practitioners. They were, for example, those to film protests, and demonstrations in high quality when the main TV broadcasters were turning their eyes away from it. They made long length films, as they incorporate slangs and new formats and recordings (such as CCTV materials) as the raw material for different kinds of productions.

These interviews have also allowed for clarifying that historical difficulties remain in the periphery, but the way of expressing their demands have fundamentally changed.

For instance, I acknowledge and analyse the presence of “the spokespeople of the periphery” in the past. This is the case of members of the Catholic Church, social movement leaders, NGO bosses and TV presenters, all of those who have introduced themselves as brokers for favela-dwellers, boias frias (sugar cane workers), and other periphery dwellers. Nowadays, these individuals’ power to speak on behalf of communities is found to be reduced. Even though their action exists, by funding projects or bridging citizens’ participation in events in Brazil or abroad, the peripheral media ensures an updated languages in which the agency of dwellers is clearly the most frequent frame.

Dom Hélder Camara (1909-1999) was a well-known Archbishop of Olinda and Recife who advocated for the poorest living in favelas all over the country. His presence has crowned a kind of “spokespeople of the periphery” role, which I approached in the book. Credit: Ciric

Other nuances exist when it comes to the presence of the state. Even though Brazil was living through the end of 13 years of Workers’ Party government at the time of my research, the support to this party is not entirely clear. While it remains seen as a political party which is closer to the periphery, many producers have still envisioned the state as an ambiguous institution, not to say a threatening entity; some looked at it as an opportunity to get funds and then produce media outlets (as they, in fact, did apply to policies created by the ill-fated Workers’ Party).

Then, several contradictions also emerge. This conditional partnership with the state (as well as with the mainstream media, a friend and foe in their words) is both “cooperative” and “politicised” in different moments.

Media producers from Brazil’s peripheries use media frames as opportunities to politicise the social demands of their communities, project their personalities onto the public attention, and reinforce the history of indifferent of Brazilians toward the periphery.

The book discusses the extent to which this ambiguity of expecting help and charity and also politicising demands and the silence from these stakeholders is a specific way of dealing with reality.

From broader demands, such as hunger or unemployment, producers build their case down to specific portraits and cases of their own familiarity. Either repackaging and reframing content to fit in their daily struggles, they play with words and images to sell what they believe is the fairest portrait of their reality. If in the mainstream media a story about police intervention in favelas would appear as: “The Rio police conducts safety operations in favelas”, these media producers would publish on their Facebook page: “Another one of us [is found] dead: Poor, black, and favelado“.

That is how the discourse of the “periphery media” works. If we consider this repeated reframing, albeit on a small-scale, it can provoke a striking effect over multiple kinds of audiences, which is not possible to verify only by taking the numbers of audience or advertising.

It is powerful because it not only breaks with the tradition of silence and indifference which informed Brazilians’ narratives of violence against the periphery (or they rather served sensationalist purposes), as peripheral media outlets have positioned what crime is like in communities in a very clear manner: Who lost their lives, disappeared and suffered, in sum, who pays the higher price of society’s “security”.

Banner of Amarildo de Souza’s disappearance case. The case shows the extent to which the life of the poor is framed differently in contemporary Brazil, pointing to a broader change in the way the Brazilian society understands and cares about such cases.

The disappearance of the builder Amarildo de Souza represents this shift very well. In the 1990s, the kidnapping and murder of a poor man of the favela would run unnoticed in the media. On the peripheral media, it has got much more highlight to the extent of leading the mainstream media agenda towards the discovery of his identity and personal history, as it has never happened before.

This new pattern of fighting inequality through what is visible contradicts very well-known patterns. The killing of 111 men in 1992, the Carandiru Massacre, illustrates this dynamics of naming the place and the event but hiding who were its victims. Not a single face or a name of any of these men have reached the prominence despite the barbarity of the episode.

This is the predominant image in the media coverage of the Carandiru massacre: The Peripheral Media book argues that contemporary Brazil tends to no longer treat individuals in such anonymised and careless way. Instead, citizens from the periphery are getting more to the media (or to their own blogs and social media) to receive a proper media representation. Credit: AP

Overall, The Peripheral Media book aims at building this new of portrait of the “periphery” through these set of examples and cases. It amalgamates a vast ecology of media producers under the periphery as an umbrella that provides the reader with the necessary visibility of the whole. Beyond the will of creating new terminologies, the periphery comes down as the only political creation that has thrived on social justice in recent times. The murder of councillor Marielle Franco has demonstrated how threatening the growing power of the periphery currently seems to those who have profited from their exclusion.

Credit: G1
Credit: Facebook Coletivo Papo Reto

The book finally proposes seeing the value of this media discourse in a different light. One must stop searching the differential of what comes from the periphery as a type of “news” or equating their outreach to that of the mainstream media. The book points to fundamental prejudices that have historically weakened everything “alternative media” in Brazil: It states the degree to which the vitality, criticism, and politicised attitude from the periphery often raises eyebrows and criticism from those who see these new speakers as “going too far”.

Despite Brazil’s recent turn into discourses of authoritarianism and the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a politician who has failed to recognise the country’s diversity as its main richness, it is possible to see progress over the past decade. The Peripheral Media shows the existing potential for bottom-up, grassroots communication, which has revitalised in many opportunities the conception of micropolitics and radical change. As any reader will see, producers have subtly turned their narratives into a realistic future for other empowered communicative communities.

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