Q and A with Paula Goes

By Margarita Williams

Paula Goes is a Brazilian journalist and translator living in London. She is currently the Portuguese language editor at Global Voices Online as well as a volunteer translator for the Global Voices Lingua project in Portuguese. After attempting industrial design and psychology as a student, she became interested in journalism by chance and fell in love with the craft.

Goes has worked as an in-house translator, software localization specialist, proof-reader and linguistic consultant. She has done freelance translation work including subtitling short films into Portuguese. She has also worked as a reporter and producer for several publications and websites, both in Brazil and in the United Kingdom.

Paula Goes in Chile, May 2010 during the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit

1. What made you want to become a journalist?

My childhood answer to the question ‘what would you like to be when you grow up’ used to be ‘I want to be a vet’ up to my teens, but didn’t have enough courage to do it when time came to decide (I can’t handle blood!). Apart from animals, I have always enjoyed writing, observing and investigating, so journalism seemed to be a natural path, although it was not my first choice either when trying to decide what I wanted to do after school. I did consider industrial design (but I had no talent for drawing or sciences) and tried Psychology (I didn’t succeed in the competitive examination for candidates to the course at the time). I ended up doing journalism quite by chance, but I loved it from day one despite the fact that working as a journalist in Brazil has never been the most joyful of the experiences because of the fact that not always we can apply in real life the golden rules of good journalism we learn at the university. Do I have what it takes? To be honest, I will never be sure whether I should have been a vet, but what I do now – citizen media – keeps me happy.

2. How does Paula the journalist differ from Paula the blogger?
I must confess that I am not a very disciplined blogger, as I tend to lose interest in my blogs as soon as I realize people are reading it and they start to enjoy some success, which is a contradiction with the act of blogging in the first place. I don’t like exposing myself and don’t feel comfortable seeing my own name in the spotlight, so often my blogs are abandoned after a few months, or even just a few posts. I am more of a blog reader type, which fits very well with my current job. I have had blogs about my life in London, cats, translation, the Global Voices coverage of Portuguese speaking blogs, and the daily things that made me happy until I realised that I was becoming a serial blogger and decided to stop this behaviour! My only blog at the moment, and the one that survived the longest, if I may call it a blog, is my work for Global Voices Online, which I believe to be essentially journalistic work.

3. In Brazil is there freedom of the press or is most news controlled by the government?

As of now, the Brazilian government has no prior say on news or any kind of censorship in place. Freedom of expression is a Constitutional right and it has been so since the 1824 Constitution was enacted (although it was banned and severely restricted during 1964-85 under the military dictatorship that ruled the country after the 1964 coup d’état led by the Armed Forces against the democratically elected government President João Goulart, a left-wing politician). The Article Five of the Brazilian Constitution states: “The manifestation of thought, the creation, the expression and the information, in any form, process or medium shall not be subject to any restriction” and also states that “no law shall contain any provision which may represent a hindrance to full freedom of press in any medium of social communication.”

The subsequent paragraphs present exceptions to prohibit war propaganda, subversion of the social and political order, and the diffusion of racist messages. There is a Press Code, whose second article specifically ensures the right to a free press: “It shall be free the publication and circulation, within the whole national territory, of books, newspapers and other periodicals, unless these are clandestine or offend the standards of public decency.”

Having said that, freedom of press in Brazil is closely linked to economic and politic power. There are six family media companies in charge of 80 per cent of the television network; Out of ten, seven magazines are run by a single group; Just two newspaper corporations in the state of São Paulo have a tenth of the national market share; and many media groups are owned by politicians. According to Costa and Brener, “instrumentalization is most evident in the case of the regional media: regional newspapers and broadcasting companies are typically owned by local oligarchs who use them to solidify their political control.”

The situation gets a little bit more complicated when we take into consideration that broadcast regulation is under the control of the Ministry of Communication, and that licenses have been used as an important currency of political patronage – hundreds to politicians have achieved one in return for political support. In turn, this cause a high level of interference by media owners in the political process. They can be hostile to the independent press if the ‘news’ are contrary to their own political agenda, or would ‘hurt’ big advertisers. Rarely are power structures questioned or wrongdoings exposed at large, unless media owners want them to be.

That is to say that, in reality, the country still has a long way to go in terms of freedom of press, although it already boasts a very lively and energetic press. The media has played an important role in exposing politic and economic problems from poverty to corruption, especially in the 1990s. In that decade, journalism had achieved maturity after learning again how to be free and use the civil liberties conquered after the end of military rule, of media censorship and by the restoration of democracy.

Does it all seem all very contradictory? Bear in mind that if in the early 1990s, newspapers and magazines conducted fierce investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse of power against then President Fernando Collor that led to his impeachment by Congress in 1992, the same media had an important role in guaranteeing the election of the same Fernando Collor, back in 1989. The small-time politician was catapulted onto the national scene by the country’s major economic powers, helped by the media they own and control. The election result was decisively manipulated by sections of media sided with the conservative right. To make a long story full of dirty tricks short, the last and decisive debate between the candidates shown on prime time TV was unevenly edited for the TV news by Globo Network to favor Collor de Melo, who had more time than Lula da Silva, as well as to show the best moments of the former and the worst of the latter. (This episode was covered by Simon Hartog’s documentary ‘Beyond Citizen Kane’, first shown in 1993 in UK and censored in Brazil).

By the way, Collor himself owns the branch of TV Globo in his state, Alagoas. Globo is the largest and most powerful national television net­work, and apart from it, he also owns the biggest newspaper and radio network in the state.

4. What are the top 3 political concerns in Brazil right now?

Elections is the top political topic – the runoff elections will take place Oct. 31 – especially as the second round happening right now, has been marred by dirty tricks as opposed to the real, much needed debate of ideas and proposals. Unethical, slanderous, illegal tactics – we have had it all from all sides. On this topic, I am working on a project to collaboratively map electoral crimes using crowd source platform Ushahidi. So far, we have mapped nearly 1120 reports, from all over the country. Here is our website. You can find some more information on Global Voices too: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/09/08/brazil-a-guide-to-tech-for-transparency-projects-in-the-2010-elections/

Related to the government, we also have had the coverage of allegations of influence-peddling by the presidential chief of staff, Erenice Guerra, whose family member took money in exchange for help in securing lucrative government contracts.

Thirdly, we have a big discussion on the current abortion laws, a serious social problem that has been used as a weapon in an electoral war instead of being the object of constructive debate. In addition to this, it has caused a row inside the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops.

5. Are there any issues you would not discuss as a blogger in fear of upsetting the Brazilian government?
Not really – There is nothing I would fear personally, and I don’t think bloggers in general need to fear discussing anything related to the government. Despite the constitution, there are legal provisions criminalising calumny and libel, as well as those considered “unjust and grave threats”. Having said that, some people even get away with it when it comes to criticizing the government (easier than with private enterprises). The Brazilian press and now bloggers have stepped up its role as government watchdog, to which President Lula often responds criticising the press for reporting on irregularities, but bloggers do not seem to bother the government.

6. How does journalism in Brazil differ from the U.S. and Brazil from London?

It is a complicated question that would demand a lot of thought and investigation. In terms of structure, Brazil does not have large newspaper chains – not even a single national newspapers – and most publications are family-owned companies, behind regional or local media conglomerates that also own regular, cable and satellite television networks, radio stations, publishing houses, news agencies, etc. Newspaper circulation and readership in Brazil have traditionally been low, which is not a surprise considering the high illiteracy rates (85 percent).  I think this is quite peculiar picture that has an impact on journalism.

From what I observe, it is noteworthy that the media in Brazil tend to wear an ‘independent’ air, a ‘neutrality’ mask, when in fact they do take sides at the same time they lead the audience to believe they act under neutrality and following the rules of good journalism. This is clear during electoral periods, when political power is being democratically disputed within society: the press and media do have an important role, however most use their power to influence the elections results through a seemingly ‘impartial’ coverage which is more partial than what most people realise. In most cases, investigations and articles will be motivated by other interests that often are far from the truth, and can be heavily one-sided.

This sad situation happens regardless of the integrity of our journalists – they are just censored by their ‘bosses’. There is a feeling that there is nothing they can do, which, in turn generates a culture of apathy: journalists who ‘do what just they are told to do’ and who dare not to question this culture if they want to keep their jobs. Tough, isn’t it? Those who do not conform with this need to be very clever to say things in a way that does not seem they are saying it, and try to surpass the line this way. The problem is, the editors are clever too!

Apart from that, while all major foreign media have offices and correspondents in Brazil, local media often import their news from international agencies, which come together with the foreigner style of coverage. Foreign coverage is getting smaller with fewer Brazilian correspondents, so more often than not, major newspapers share the same articles taken from the news wires, just translated without any investigation or complementing from our own side. International news have become like fast food, served without seasoning or deep investigation. There is an interesting article about it here.

I  believe that in the US and UK the media is clear about which side they stand by, which make readers know beforehand why their coverage is shaped in a way or another.  And we don’t have anything like the BBC, which is fully supported by the public – but we don’t have tabloids either.

Brazilian Flag

7. In the U.S church and state are said to be separate, but they often seem to cross over. Do religion and politics often cross paths in Brazil?

I would definitely say so! Although Brazil is a secular state, as mentioned below there is a very blurry crossing line. Brazil is a massive country where all religions tend to live well together, but it is heavily influenced by the Catholic Church (Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic nation), which has historically always held a lot of power at the same time that evangelical church grows bigger every day. Until up to these elections the evangelical community had 61 of the 513 representatives in Brazil’s Congress, and three senators. Religious groups also own TV networks, newspapers and radio stations in the country. They do have power.

They have their say in issues like drugs, abortion, marriage, gay rights, medical procedures and freedom of speech, and have the power to influence millions of people to move to whatever side of the discussion they take. Some of their influence is good. One of the main recent victories of Brazil’s fight for clean elections, the Ficha Limpa bill, only succeed because of the mobilization of the Church: there were 1.6 million signatures collected at the grassroots by activists and church groups calling for it.

8. Women in Brazil put a lot of focus on beauty. Has it always been this way or has it evolved over time?

I personally think that this is one of the many stereotypes that hang over Brazil! I would say that most of Brazilian women do not put any focus on beauty (or even have the resources to follow the trend). For those who live in big metropolitan cities and who have better social status, their behaviour is not at all different to the way women in the US, Europe or any other part of the Occident would have in a globalised world, where the cosmetic, diet and cosmetic surgery industries rule and profit, and where women have being imposed certain standards of beauty. I believe the said ‘Brazilian beauty’ is a product of exportation, just like football and samba.

9. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like to include?

Yes, thanks for asking. I would like to talk about the work I do for Global Voices Online, which is a tremendously fantastic citizen media project that has made me believe it is possible to be happy working as a journalist. It is like having the opportunity to exercise that journalism we believe in when we leave journalism school, and need to quickly forget when we enter the job market: honest, impartial, free.  Working with citizen media, I feel I can indeed contribute to towards good national education, citizenship, focus on social and human rights issues, etc, instead of working as a piece in the machine that strengthens the current political and economic status quo, for an industry whose final mission is either make more money or have more power.

I think citizen journalism is the future of news: in my opinion, it is no longer possible to go back to the times when readers had to wait for tomorrow’s newspaper to know what is going around them, or have the viewers sit in front of television without a channel to replicate the news they are served. They now have blogs, they can investigate, add their own commentary and reflections, question what has been served as truth. The Internet has made it possible for everyone to report on their own realities. To be the media.

As a reader, Global Voices has given me an insight into parts of the world I had little knowledge of, I feel I have become a more tolerant and better person. Be a member of such a multicultural and thriving community is very rewarding too. I just love the way that Global Voices help to break the language and cultural barriers and thus make possible for people from all over the world to walk towards global understanding and fraternity.

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