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Repórter Brasil at 15

Article written on the occasion of Repórter Brasil’s 15th anniversary argues that a civil society organization working with media should promote human rights, identify victims and perpetrators and, above all, expose the system.

According to an old São Paulo University (USP) professor, journalism should be independent, but never impartial. After all, how can impartiality be maintained in the face of poverty, hunger, suffering, exploitation?

Born in Portugal, Manuel Chaparro grew up under the European journalistic paradigm and immigrated to Brazil as an already trained professional.

His view of journalism, marked by an ethical sense of public interest, would quickly connect to that of many students who came to the university with lots of energy, dreaming of changing things, denouncing, defending the underprivileged.

What first comes to my mind when writing about journalism and human rights as Repórter Brasil turns 15 are memories of college hallways.

One cannot be impartial when it comes to Brazil’s iniquities. One cannot conceive journalism unless it is guided by advocacy of the rights denied to people.

Saying that seems like a cliché – even because the ideal of human rights is crystallized among most of us. It is one of the hegemonic ideologies of our times.

Historical anti-monarchic struggles have bequeathed to international frameworks the idea that everyone is born equal in dignity and rights. Actually, that is the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But who can say that human rights have become real? There are so many homeless people, children fleeing wars, immigrants being kicked, workers enslaved.

Recalling Plato’s ‘Myth of the Cave’ – a usual reference at Journalism schools – it is essential that more and more people leave that cave and bring different views on reality.

That is what Repórter Brasil tries to do: exploring the outside of the cave where chained prisoners only believed in the projections made on the wall by the light of a fire.

Under sunlight, we have to travel the country’s depths to interview people in the outskirts, villages and communities that are historically forgotten. In theory, they have all the rights. In practice, however…

But the truth is that telling these stories is not enough. A humanizing look is essential – without sentimentalism.

I believe that the mental solution many of us have adopted to live with the tragedies of everyday life is to dehumanize the victims. We grow apart; we don’t see them as human beings.

It is easier to understand what I mean if we think of what they say about outlaws out there: “Human rights are for right humans”. Basically, we mean that criminals are not human beings.

It is interesting that this view does not necessarily deny the values of human rights. The person says: ‘Look, I’m for human rights, but not for the guy who did this or that’.

It was in the fight against such discourse that Repórter Brasil found its trenches. Much more than doing journalism that promotes human rights, we want to report on the humanity of those who have been systematically dehumanized.

With reports that tell stories about people from the state of Maranhão who were enslaved in cattle ranches in Pará; about Indians who lost their land to large soy farmers in Mato Grosso do Sul; about Bolivian women nursing babies while sowing at workshops in São Paulo.

But we must take a step further. Talking about those who had their rights violated won’t be enough: people want to know who violates them and why.

Traditionally, this responsibility is ascribed to States. Under the international system created after World War II, they must protect and pay for crimes committed against individuals.

It is under this framework that traditional media adjusted its mission, covering crimes committed by armies and police forces, warning about governments’ failure to fulfill their duties in public policy.

But the expansion of transnational corporations demanded updating that many news organizations could not do. Large transnational companies move more financial resources than many States and also cause harm to human rights.

The issue is not new. Back in the seventies, the UN launched its Center on Transnational Corporations to discuss their activities and to monitor them. But the agency did not thrive and was eventually extinct in the nineties.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) ended up playing an important role in that regulation, and in 2011, the UN Council for Human Rights launched the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, whose enforcement is voluntary and therefore still has little effect.

There is no room here to discuss why traditional media has not been able to extend its critical coverage of governments to large companies. Perhaps their need for advertising funds is a hypothesis to be explored.

The point is that civil society organizations that work with journalism and do not depend on ad money have the potential to place corporations at the center of the human rights debate. Repórter Brasil is such an example.

In recent years, reports have revealed connections of major global brands such as Coca-Cola and Zara with cases of slave labor; of Bunge and Raízen with the purchase of raw materials in areas claimed by Indians; of JBS and Brasil Foods with deforestation in the Amazon.

Note that those are companies from different industries that benefited from exploiting workers or the environment.

In a way, there are plenty of cases where States and transnational corporations operate together to violate people’s rights, playing the villain’s role in class struggle.

And those are not isolated cases – that’s how the system works, often supported by State funding and crony legislation.

That reminds me of another lesson of journalism, this time given by Martin Baron, who was portrayed in the award-winning film “Spotlight” when he was the editor of “The Boston Globe”.

When discussing the publication of reports on priests’ sexual abuse against children, he argued that the emphasis should be placed on the “system” – that is, on the fact that the Church concealed the scandal – rather than on individual cases. He believed that the impact and the effects would be stronger.

I agree. That’s how journalism can be relevant in people’s lives, especially in the field of human rights.

Advancing them won’t suffice; we need to identify victims and abusers. Not just describing cases, but exposing the system – that’s what I hope Repórter Brasil will be able to do even strongly in the next 15 years.

* Marcel Gomes is the executive secretary of Repórter Brasil. He is a journalist with a Masters’ Degree in Political Science from USP and a PhD student in Planning of Energy Systems at Unicamp.

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