Security matters

I went to a debate last night at the ABI, a sort of press union here. ‘Journalists in the middle of gunfire’ is how I can best translate it if I was going to do it literally, or perhaps “journalists in the crossfire” sounds better. In these post-UPP times, it was fascinating to hear journalists and a few academics talk about the ethics and safety issues of reporting on violence today in Rio. The excellent photographer Alcyr Cavalcanti showed his photos over the last 30 years. Apart from their quality, what was striking to me was the number of times previous police invasions, looking exactly like the recent ones, have taken place. I had to check if I was reading right when I saw the photo “army invades Alemao, 1995”. It had the same pictures of soldiers planting the Brazil flag on the top of the hill, or other symbols, including a white cross or graffiti that read “paz” (peace). Consumers of news have short memories generally; and as a relatively new addition here I have no memory at all. It was a troubling reminder that we’ve been here before.

This provoked the question in me, as always, about how cynical or not one has the right to be. As ever, there is that doubt hovering over me about whether all reporting is essentially reactionary. We don’t want to look at the bigger picture, we just want to cry outrage and then move on to the next story. I was grateful to watch a bit of the excellent documentary by Guillerme Planel about the work of photojournalists. His documentary interviewed a selection of Brazilian photographers, several of whom wept at remembering the things they had photographed. What he said which I thought was so important was that here, the ugly reality so often stays hidden or unreported. People in the communities see one reality reported on TV or in the papers while they can see another one in front of their very eyes. Police rob from the community then the community sees the public cheer in restaurants at the TV news that the police have come to take over. For this reason, it’s not unduly pessimistic or negative to show violence in the media here or elsewhere.

I think I’m only just beginning to learn more about the complexity of Rio de Janeiro’s problems, and like everyone else I don’t expect I’ll ever get to the bottom of it. One of the things that has made a recent impression on me is how everything is a negotiation. You have to get your hands dirty and make a deal with the devil at some point, or at least buy him a drink, if you want to progress your particular interest. This can be as true for NGOs in favelas as politicians in Congress. At the same time, I’m always impressed by the balls of so many people in standing up against some pretty sinister forces.

Sociologist Edna del Pomo, based at the UFF university here, tackled some of the things that have troubled me about reporting on crime that goes on here, especially on TV. She spoke about the recent event of the arrest of the boss of Rocinha, Nem, and how his head was shaven and he was put in a green uniform like an animal that has been captured. It certainly appears he has committed some pretty gruesome crimes but it always troubled me that there seems an absence of concern about contempt of court in Rio’s media. Also this kind of parading of trophies, hunted in the favelas, has more than a tinge of inhumanity about it. Edna Del Pomo, a pretty formidable character herself, reminded the journalists there about the language sometimes used (though I believe by the State rather than the papers), such as the need to “clean” the favelas, as though the people living there are themselves somehow dirty and need to be cleansed, even in the most brutal of ways. As the ever-knowledgeable Globo crime reporter Jorge Antonio Barros put it, in the eyes of many folks here, everyone in the favelas is a bandido or a supporter of the crime that has taken such a strong hold in some of these areas.

The overall impression was of a group of pretty brave and conscientious journalists who are adapting to changing times. Crime here is part of the fabric of the city, it is impossible to experience Rio without being affected by it. Even holidaymakers must take care not to leave the house with their bankcards, in this oil-rich city riding the waves of the BRIC optimism. Yet many people just don’t want to talk about it or even see it. It’s worth adding that Jorge Antonio Barros works for Globo, but while some criticise that organisation for not showing the downside of the UPPs or the police corruption, he takes a microscopic look at crime in the city and was keen to stress he doesn’t get his work censured. The reality is rich and complex, and there are many voices involved. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic that the problem of violence will be solved by these latest measures, but I do feel optimistic that there are people working hard to make sure we don’t turn a blind eye to it.