Handheld, improvised ‘NINJA’ journalism has changed the way Brazil watches the protests unfold. But recently, the group itself has become the story, as the little-understood collective they sprung from has come under digital scrutiny from all sides. Photo: Mídia NINJA
By Claire Rigby
Last week, Folha de S.Paulo’s Los Angeles correspondent Fernanda Ezabella breezed into town with a new toy: a Google Glass headset. She wore it to cover Wednesday night’s protests, filming the action on the street while Folha’s drone flew overhead, using a smartphone to transmit the protest from the sky. It was the first time Glass had been used in conjunction with a drone to create a live report. But Ezabella’s isn’t the only journalism story making waves in the Brazilian press right now.
If you’ve taken even a passing interest in the protests that gripped Brazil in June, and are still simmering in cities across the country, chances are you’ve seen some of the prolific output of the Mídia NINJA journalism collective. The young video and photography hacktivists, who roam the streets with little more than smartphones, cameras and maybe a laptop, have been chronicling Brazil’s spasms of unrest day after day and night after night, capturing and publishing images of protests, riots and arrests, and streaming hours of footage from assemblies, marches, occupied encampments, meetings and debates on their Facebook page, and on their e-TV channel, #PosTV. Active since well before Brazil’s June protests, they follow in the steps of alt. media collectives like Indymedia, which at its zenith a decade ago massed an international network of activist reporters to cover global protests and social movements, starting with 1999’s Battle of Seattle. Mídia NINJA also uses accessible technology to create low-cost, high-impact material, but unlike Indymedia, its focus so far has been purely on generating images, with a curious lack of written reportage or coverage.
NINJA initially won grudging admiration even from Brazilians unsupportive of the recent wave of protests, not least because of the quality and impact of its photos. But over the last couple of weeks the grungy collective – ‘NINJA’ stands for Narrativas Independentes, Jornalismo e Ação’ (Independent Narratives, Journalism and Action) – has found itself becoming the story, as well as covering it. The subject of TV reports, a stream of articles in the mainstream press, and thousands of words’ worth of social media posts, Mídia NINJA’s success thrust it first into the spotlight, and then into the floodlit glare of national scrutiny, sparked by its self-proclaimed ‘umbilical’ connection with – and indeed, emergence out of – a controversial network of collectives called Foro do Eixo, whose name means ‘outside the [Rio–São Paulo] axis’.
Axis of internet
As interest in Mídia Ninja grew, its de facto leader, the 34-year-old journalist Bruno Torturra, gave a widely seen interview on the TV programme Roda Viva on 5 August alongside Pablo Capilé, the founder and leader of Fora do Eixo. It rocketed the twin collectives into the public eye in an instant – and then brought detractors streaming out of the woodwork, in what became a frenzy of criticism, in print and online, aimed mainly at Fora do Eixo, but tainting Mídia NINJA by association.
Fora do Eixo’s role as a producer of live gigs and festivals in towns and cities across Brazil – and its policy of not paying the majority of the musicians taking part, offering them ‘exposure’ instead – has won it a small army of enemies over the ten years it has been in existence. A string of denouncements of the collective and of Capilé in particular, which began in the days following the TV interview and then snowballed, have covered subjects ranging from its failure to pay bands to accusations of psychological control and slave-like working conditions for its members, who live and work together on Fora do Eixo projects, including Mídia NINJA, in twenty communal houses Brazil-wide.
Highly committed to the work and to collective living, Fora do Eixo housemates are unpaid except for access to a collective cashbox, and share bank accounts, living quarters, and even – in the kind of detail that has piqued Brazil’s interest in the story – communal clothes. There are even allegations that ‘flirty fishing‘ techniques are encouraged to draw new members into the group.
Despite the shared clothes and the collectivist spirit, what the group’s ideology is about, and what draws people into it in the first place, inducing them to give up work and studies to dedicate themselves full-time to its projects, is something of a mystery. But from the kinds of events I’ve seen Fora do Eixo members at, filming whether for #PosTV or as Mídia NINJA, it’s fair to say the group is left-wing, and interested in formenting and participating in social movements. If an article about Fora do Eixo by the journalist and music impresario Alê Youssef, published in Trip magazine in 2011, is to be given credit, the ideology, if there is one, is a kind of Generation Y, post-digital mishmash that sees concepts like class struggle as old hat. Youssef cites Cláudio Prado, a theorist and activist attached to Fora do Eixo, who claims that this is the ‘post-rancour’ generation, ‘unfettered by philosophical questions, but radically exploring digital culture in order to do what needs to be done’.
Published in the days following the Roda Viva interview, two chronically overlong accounts by disgruntled former Fora do Eixo collectivists (here and here) have gone viral on Facebook, detonating long threads that have in turn been shared and commented on by a lynch-happy online mob, apparently intent on tearing the collective, or hoping to watch it tear itself, to pieces. The testimonies and counter-testimonies (here, for example), have been the subject of mainstream media reports almost daily, and Friday even brought an unexpectedly one-sided attack in the form of an article in the Leftist weekly magazine Carta Capital, co-written by a former Fora do Eixo collaborator.
Carta Capital later published an interview with Pablo Capilé on its site, giving him the chance to respond to some of the accusations made by those interviewed in the article. Capilé also wrote detailed answers to a set of 70 questions about Fora do Eixo, put to him by the journalist André Forastieri and covering subjects from the collective’s accounts and its channels of public and private funding, to its relationship with other social movement players, and its practices on the live music circuit.
As for the political Right, the word ‘schadenfreude’ is barely sufficient to describe the reactions of those observing the controversy. This saga, like some of the debates currently taking place in feminism – debates of the no-holds-barred kind, which used to happen internally with a measure of trust and privacy, and now unfold under the scornful gaze of half the internet – has them rolling in the aisles.
In a series of four posts at Veja, a weekly news magazine and website with a tone somewhere between Readers’ Digest and the Daily Mail, the right-wing blogger and former Trotskyist Reinaldo Azevedo dissected Carta Capital’s Fora do Eixo exposé with lascivious glee; while Senator Aloysio Nunes, of the PSDB party, has called for an investigation into federal funds paid to Fora do Eixo for its many projects. The collective has become expert, over the 10 years since its founding in Cuiabá, Pablo Capilé’s home town, at capturing large amounts of Brazil’s ‘Incentive Law’ funding: ‘private sector funds … in which private companies fund ministry-approved cultural projects in lieu of paying a particular tax, whether federal, state, or municipal’.*
Fora do Eixo’s life and times are powerfully compelling, and will no doubt be fuel for many column inches, and many more megabytes of bandwidth, in the weeks and months to come. But Mídia NINJA’s close association with it – indeed, many of the Ninjas appear to be live-in members of Fora do Eixo – has done the fledgling media collective serious damage. And it’s a pity, because against a current backdrop of waves of mass sackings in the Brazilian media and the recent closures of a number of major newspaper supplements and magazine titles, with more feared to come, Mídia NINJA, stewarded by Bruno Torturra, has been posing questions that are of greater importance than those involved in the virtual lynching of Fora do Eixo, and by association Mídia NINJA, may have considered.
The controversy came just as Mídia NINJA was on the verge of launching its new website, and more importantly, of unveiling a set of innovative proposals for new, experimental, collaborative forms of independent news and journalism production, with new funding models to match. As Torturra explained in a 31 July email interview with André Forastieri, these could potentially include initial crowdfunding to set up a newsroom and low-cost monthly subscriptions for its upkeep; donations to pay for specific reports or fund particular areas of coverage – say transport, indigenous rights, or city hall; and a system of microdonations for ‘liking’ a text or image, with a monthly bill that readers would be free to pay in part or not at all, with any proceeds sent directly to the author in question.*
It was before the June explosion of protests that Bruno Torturra first began proposing new models of collective journalism. He wrote a widely-shared post on his blog, Casca de Besouro, entitled O Ficaralho – a play on the word ‘passaralho’, which means mass sackings, replacing it with something like ‘it’s the ones left behind who are screwed’. Referring to the latest in a tsunami of lay-offs that has struck the media industry in Brazil, as abroad, Torturra wrote, ‘It used to be that the heartbroken were the ones who had lost their jobs, as if they’d been ejected from a party that would be going on without them. Today, the sadness is on the parts of those left behind … Last week, I saw the joy of friends who had all lost their jobs together, cheered by the sense of an open road before them. And I saw the tears and depression of those left in the newsroom, accumulating functions and doing the work of three people, repeating routines that appear to have no purpose but the pursuit of a precarious salary.’
In 2012 alone, more than 1,200 Brazilian journalists lost their jobs and already in 2013, the dreaded ‘passaralho’, whose name sounds like a flock of terrible, job-destroying birds (‘pássaros’), has swept over the offices of the newspapers Estado de S.Paulo, Folha de S. Paulo, Valor Econômico, smaller publications like Brasil Econômico and Caros Amigos, and over the mighty, multi-title magazine behemoth of Editora Abril. (Meanwhile, despite the supposedly moribund state of the media in Brazil, four unthinkably wealthy media moguls are still perched at the top of Forbes Brazil’s 15 richest billionaires list).
Presenting the case for a collective effort to rethink the market, in his ‘Ficaralho’ post, Torturra called on interested journalists to attend a meeting, intended to present a brand new project called ‘NINJA’ – ‘to explore the possibilities of coverage, discussion, repercussion, compensation and the radical freedom of expression that the network offers. Streaming, print, blogs, photos and public debates, without the spectre of profit and business growth as the primordial conditions for the work’.
The tipping point
The meeting was initially called for the 10th, then the 13th of June. But as the night of the 13th approached, the meeting was cancelled – the protests on the street in São Paulo were hitting critical mass, and indeed, they were reaching a tipping point. In fact, it was at almost exactly 8pm that night that all hell broke loose on the streets around Praça Roosevelt and Rua da Consolação, the result of a wildly disproportionate response from SP’s military police, who pelted protestors with tear gas, smoke bombs and rubber bullets. It was the night the Folha reporter Giuliana Vallone was shot in the face with a rubber bullet, and the night that the rage of those watching the coverage of the protests on TV and online, including via Mídia NINJA, reached boiling point. (I wrote about the scenes on the streets that night here on From Brazil: Fear and loathing in São Paulo.)
The planning meeting never took place, though the events of June gave life to an organic, dynamic, needs-must Mídia NINJA that created many of the powerful images in turn driving the ongoing protests. A handful of meetings have since been held and continue to take place, as Mídia NINJA struggles to find its feet. Many amongst those observing the damage to Fora do Eixo and its reputation, including some of those on the Right, are hoping Mídia NINJA will evolve its way out of the mess – older and wiser, and with the independence that comes from participation and discussion beyond Fora do Eixo. And with a fresh approach to news reporting that not only challenges journalists and the market to change, and fast, but also demands that readers, viewers and internet users do the same.
Interviewed on R7 News on Friday, Torturra alluded to the new models of news production and funding, tossing the ball into the reader’s court: ‘As consumers of mass media, readers aren’t being treated as participants, but as consumers of information that’s increasingly presented as product, commodity, “content”. We need to invert the logic of the passive reader and look at the way news is produced – the reader needs to become responsible for the production of information before it is produced. Thanks to the internet, readers are no longer passive spectators of reality – they can expose the media, pressurise it and monitor it. But with that comes a greater responsibility. New communicators’ – and here, he might well be talking about the internet lynch mobs prowling the web – ‘need to become more conscious about what they write and say.’
Photos and three taken, with permission, from the NINJA Tumblr page
* Currently, Mídia NINJA earns nothing for its coverage and indeed, refuses payment for the images it allows media outlets to publish, including those used in this post. Also, for the purpose of disclosure: I know Bruno Torturra slightly – we have friends in common and have spoken, briefly, about the events of the last few weeks.
* That succinct description of Brazil’s lei de incentivo funding is cited in ‘The Space, the Gear, and Two Big Cans of Beer’, a readable and engaging academic paper about Fora do Eixo written by Shannon Garland, an American Ph.D. student. Garland studied the collective over a long period of time as part of her research, looking into the way Fora do Eixo became a player on Brazil’s live music scene, and on its practices in that context. You can download it in English here, in Portuguese here, and read Garland’s interesting, insider contributions (in Portuguese) to the current debate at her blog, La Gringa Sudaca.