The interim government attempts to silence dissenting voices in the public media and threatens to change a law to end the public media outlets of the Brazil Communications Company (EBC). Mechanisms for popular participation in the sector are also at risk.
Bia Barbosa*/Brazil/June 2016.
The commitment of any government to a diversity of ideas and opinions, and to democracy itself, can be measured by the way a government treats public communications. There are several examples to refer to: those countries throughout the world that have a consolidated democracy enjoy strong public media outlets, which play a fundamental role in guaranteeing the exercise of freedom of expression of the different segments that make up their populations.
Unfortunately in the case of Brazil, it was only in 2008 that the country took the first steps in establishing a public communications system. It was in that year that a law was passed to create the Brazil Communications Company (EBC), responsible for two TV channels, eight radio stations, a website, an online news agency and a radio news agency. Before this law, the country had only a limited number of local or State broadcasters of educational radio and TV, few of which were linked up in a network, and no public communications project established for the people of Brazil.
Thus, the arrival of EBC in the media landscape was one response to the strong demand from civil society for more diversity and plurality in the media. It was also a requirement of the Brazilian Constitution, which provides in Article 223 for a complementary engagement between public, private and State systems. In a country where just a few families control the private-sector mass media, the first steps taken at the end of the Lula government to establish a public system have been widely praised.
However, over the past eight years, consolidation of this system has not progressed quickly enough or responded to the demands of our democracy. Many events have taken place indicating a clear confusion between what is public and what is government communication on the part of the ministers in the governments led by Dilma Rousseff. Neither has the EBC received the necessary financial investment to expand its transmission signal to the whole country, in order to guarantee a production structure of the highest quality and to ensure better working conditions for the sector’s employees.
Although problems arose and despite the fact that the company is formally linked to the Ministry of Social Communication of the Presidency of the Republic -a situation that per se poses a risk to the editorial independence of its media outlets- the autonomy of the broadcasters and other media organizations that make up the EBC has been obtained over the years by the efforts of the company’s workers and the Conselho Curador (Curator Council), which is mostly made up of civil society representatives, elected through public consultation.
However, this entire process, which is still taking shape, is now facing a serious threat. One of the first acts of the interim government of Michel Temer was to illegally dismiss the director-president of the EBC, journalist Ricardo Melo, replacing him with one of his supporters. According to the law governing the EBC, only the Curator Council can dismiss the president of the company, who is to serve a four-year term. Along with the Council, this is one of the main mechanisms to ensure the autonomy of public communication with respect to the political interests of the government in office. Temer dismissed Melo, who after 15 days was reinstated by the Brazilian Supreme Court.
However, during this short period, several EBC commentators had their contracts canceled and their programs taken off the programming schedule without any concern for the company’s Work Plan, which is also approved by the Curator Council. Dozens of officials in special posts assigned by the Melo administration were also dismissed. Coverage of various cultural events was canceled and numerous reports have not been published. An internal regulation was introduced prohibiting journalists from referring to Dilma Rousseff as «presidenta» of Brazil; the order was to use the term «president» without the gender inflection (the term «presidenta» was always emphasized by Dilma). The practice of censorship against dissenting voices to the interim government of Michael Temer became categorically installed, and workers who do not support the impeachment of Dilma are being persecuted.
However, there is something more serious happening than the changes already made in the operations of the company, and those are the plans that Temer has announced via the mainstream media for public communications. Under the premise that the EBC has become a hub of activity for members of the Workers’ Party, an argument that has no foundation given that most of the employees of the EBC are State officials who entered the company through a public tender, not by being handpicked; and also that TV Brazil (one of the EBC stations) has zero audience ratings and the company is in debt. Michel Temer has said that he will change the law governing the EBC. The aim is to drastically reduce the company’s size, eliminating channels, laying off more employees, eliminating the Curator Council and amending the rules that govern the way the presidency of the company is renewed.
The above would mean the end of a project that has not yet been able to become consolidated, thanks to the efforts of a government fixated on the interests of Brazil’s large media conglomerates, and for which the expression of our ethnic, social and cultural diversity is of insignificant interest. Temer doesn’t care if the EBC is the station that most exhibits domestically produced films; if its news agencies produce free content (photos, text, audio and images), which are then reproduced in thousands of media outlets throughout Brazil, including the commercial sector; if TV Brazil, which has 32 million viewers, is one of the few free-to-air channels concerned about the provision of children’s programming, and which has, for example, a cartoon series starring dark-skinned characters; he doesn’t care if the National Radio of the Amazonia is the only radio station that broadcasts to all the municipalities that make up the forest region; or that the Curator Council includes representatives of indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and Afro-Brazilian youth.
The reactions of civil society and various other sectors against this devastation have multiplied. The “Defense Committee for the EBC and Public Communication» created in May thanks to the organization of dozens of bodies, has published a manifesto and received the support of researchers, artists, independent producers, human rights organizations, communicators and the most diverse range of social movements. These are segments that recognize in the public communication system their only area of freedom of expression within the mass media. The Defense Committee has also organized demonstrations in several Brazilian states along with debates in the country’s National Congress (where any change in the Law governing the EBC will have to be approved).
Although such resistance is only beginning, it has already proven to be one of the most strategic in terms of rescuing Brazilian democracy from the breakdown it is presently suffering, for without public and democratic communication, there can be no democracy.
*Bia Barbosa is a journalist, director of Intervozes, and secretary of the National Forum for the Democratization of Communications (FNDC)