Confidence in Brazil’s rulers has dropped so low that accusations of corruption usually stick, even when there’s little evidence. In such a chaotic situation, many in Brazil’s media should be doing a better job, says Alex Cuadros. Above, one of a few particularly grievous examples.
Earlier this month, one of Brazil’s most popular magazines, Época, put President Dilma Rousseff’s ex-husband on its cover. The headline reads “In the Sights of the Car Wash”—a reference to the corruption probe that has implicated dozens of businessmen and politicians in a scheme to embezzle billions from the state oil company, Petrobras.
On the surface, the story looks like a massive scoop. Even after their divorce, Carlos Araújo remains an informal advisor to Rousseff, so it would mean that a member of the president’s inner circle is under investigation in the scandal that has shaken the foundations of Brazil’s political establishment. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
As I’ll argue below, there’s not much meat to Época’s cover story. It appears that its reporters tried very hard to uncover something incriminating, but found only vague implications. Under normal conditions, most magazines might refrain from printing such an inflammatory cover without any proof of wrongdoing. But conditions are far from normal in Brazil at the moment. Suspicion of politicians—and of Rousseff’s government especially—now runs so deep that almost any implication can stick.
Seen this way, the cover may tell us more about the polarization of Brazil’s media and political landscape than it does about Rousseff’s ex-husband.
Corruption – this time is different
For decades (if not centuries), Brazilians have tended to assume that corruption is widespread at most levels of government. Before this scandal, dozens of sitting congressmen were facing charges for various crimes; one is wanted by Interpol.
What’s new about Car Wash (“Lava Jato,” in Portuguese) is that the crimes aren’t being swept under the rug. Thanks to testimony offered in plea bargains, top executives and politicians have been convicted of corruption. Billionaires have spent time behind bars, and so has a sitting senator. This is a big deal in a country where impunity for the rich and powerful has generally been the rule.
Most of the people involved in the scheme are either allies of Rousseff’s government or members of her party. So far, though, little concrete evidence has emerged to implicate the president herself. This clashes with the convictions of the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who, since shortly after her reelection in 2014, have marched in favor of her impeachment. They overwhelmingly believe she knew about the scheme and let it happen. Given the scope of the crimes, and the fact that she previously served as chairwoman of Petrobras, this is an understandable conclusion.
Still, the evidence is thin enough that, when Congress opened impeachment proceedings in December, the official case didn’t include any corruption allegations against her. Instead it focuses on Rousseff’s apparent violations of budget rules—an issue at the heart of Brazil’s economic crisis, but unrelated to the Petrobras scheme. So to uncover influence peddling in the president’s inner circle would be a revelation of major public interest.
The media’s role in Car Wash
The press has played a vital role in publicizing the Car Wash investigations, making a cover-up less politically feasible. But Brazil’s major publications are not exactly neutral. On occasion, they have distorted the facts in ways that seem to serve an anti-government agenda.
The most glaring example came just a few days before the second round of elections in 2014, when Veja magazine ran a cover (left) featuring the faces of Rousseff and former President Lula with the headline: “They knew about everything.” In smaller type, the cover declared that the main witness in Car Wash had “revealed” that Rousseff and Lula were aware of the corruption at Petrobras.
The story itself, though, contained no documentary evidence nor any explanation of how the witness would know what—according to Veja—he claimed to know. And later it emerged that the witness had merely made a logical deduction: Based on the scale of the scheme, Lula and Rousseff must have known. This has little legal value and would make for a much less damning cover.
It’s reasonable to speculate that Veja‘s cover sought to sway the election. But whatever its intention, the effect was obvious: to make Rousseff look complicit in the growing scandal. At voting booths that Sunday, opposition voters wore printouts of the cover around their necks. Knowing this, it becomes easier to understand why most Brazilians are convinced she knew about the corruption at Petrobras, despite the lack of hard evidence.
It has long been an article of faith on Brazil’s left that the establishment media—Veja, Época, the Globo media group, and newspapers such as Folha de S.Paulo—are in league to undermine Lula, Rousseff, and their Workers Party. This is an exaggeration. While it’s true that these outlets generally lean to the right of Brazil’s political spectrum (if we define the center according to electoral outcomes since 2000), for the most part their reporting is responsible. Sometimes, it is crucial. In 2012, for example, O Estado de S. Paulo reported on the massively inflated price of a Petrobras refinery in the U.S.—long before Car Wash would uncover signs of embezzlement in the project.
Also, scoops from the establishment media have often exposed scandals involving the current opposition. Perhaps most famously, in a 1997 front-page story, Folha exposed the congressional vote-buying that paved the way for a constitutional amendment to allow President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula’s longtime rival, to run for reelection. (The scandal was never officially investigated.)
But stories like the one I’ve mentioned from Veja, by making spurious leaps based on trumped-up evidence, undermine the credibility of the entire media. Rather than illuminating, they obfuscate, and serve to deepen the already extreme polarization of politics here.
These stories also represent missed opportunities to delve into other alleged crimes—of which there’s no shortage in the Car Wash probe. The president of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is suspected of stealing millions from public coffers, but has received much more cautious treatment from Veja and Época both, despite an abundance of evidence against him. He’s the one (pictured right on another cover) who opened impeachment proceedings against Rousseff.
What did Rousseff’s ex-husband do?
This brings us back to the Época article in question. The cover states that a tycoon involved in the Petrobras scheme sought Araújo’s help in obtaining a government bailout for his construction firm. But does the evidence against Rousseff’s ex-husband justify associating him with major crimes on the cover of a national magazine? Based on a close read, the answer would seem to be no. Here are the facts:
- Construction tycoon José Antunes wanted to ask President Rousseff to bail out his company, Engevix—one of the alleged members of the cartel to skim bribes from Petrobras contracts.
- Antunes hired an intermediary, Paulo Zuch, to set up a meeting with Rousseff’s ex-husband, Carlos Araújo (a labor lawyer who has no official role in government).
- Zuch paid Araújo’s friend Nilton Belsarena 200,000 reais (close to $50,000 at today’s rates) to set up the meeting between Araújo and Antunes.
- When they met, according to Zuch, Antunes asked Araújo to set up a meeting with the president, and Araújo said, “Yes, I’ll see to it.”
That’s it. There’s no indication that Araújo himself received any money. Zuch—apparently the main source for the story—and Belsarena both say they didn’t pay Araújo anything. Also, Araújo’s reported promise to “see to” Antunes’s request seems to be based on one person’s memory—Zuch’s—of a meeting from nearly three years ago. Nor is there any evidence that Araújo actually asked Rousseff to intervene. (After the article came out, he said he didn’t.) And of course, Engevix wasn’t bailed out.
Antunes clearly sought to influence the government, but it seems that he failed.
Faced with a paucity of facts, Época—like Veja in its pre-election cover story—resorted to inflated language to make its case. According to the article, a “team of reporters” spent “months” on a “special investigation” to find out if Antunes’s plan worked. “It has emerged that the strategy was at least put in motion,” the article reads. This might less generously be translated as: “We failed to find out much beyond the plan’s existence.”
The article refers to the meeting between Antunes and Araújo as “secret.” This certainly sounds suspicious. But given that neither of the two men is a government official with a public agenda, what classifies the meeting as “secret”? Época doesn’t explain.
Época does reproduce contracts to show how Zuch transferred money from Engevix to Belsarena. There’s also a photo of Rousseff with Belsarena and his wife. These elements give the article a sheen of documentary veracity, but ultimately they’re red herrings, because they don’t actually support the idea that Araújo may have engaged in influence peddling. (This calls to mind a previous Época story on Lula, which made documents showing declared investments in retirement funds—which would otherwise be pretty boring—look like evidence of money laundering.)
The article also refers to negotiations with prosecutors over Antunes’s plea bargain. The way it’s written, Antunes seems ready to implicate Araújo in criminal activities. But all it’s really saying is that his interactions with Araújo were “discussed.”
The strangest bit of misdirection comes on the last page of the article. Reporters caught another Engevix partner, Gerson Almada, at the airport in Brasília and asked him to comment on the plan with Araújo. Almada responded with a jumble of vague promises of future information. This could mean that he was going to reveal details of Araújo’s involvement, as the article seems to imply—or, equally, that Almada was just trying to get the reporters off his back.
Responsible journalistic practice?
Época seems desperate to assuage suspicions over the motivations of its main source, Zuch—who actually did help Antunes in his possibly illegal attempt to influence the government. Zuch’s statements are held up as “trustworthy,” an adjective that shouldn’t even need mentioning. Most readers would probably assume that the magazine wouldn’t rely on sources it didn’t consider trustworthy.
Época also fails to provide essential transparency on its reporting process. According to the article, Araújo “received” the magazine’s reporters at his office. But only one short, indignant quote from him appears late in the piece, and it doesn’t address any substantial questions. Later, Araújo revealed that the reporters pretended to be potential clients and ambushed him with questions once they were alone in a room with him.
This tactic could even be justified as a journalistic strategy, but why hide it from readers? It seems that Época wanted to show that it gave Araújo plenty of opportunity to respond to the accusations questions being raised. But apart from that episode, in its months of reporting, the magazine’s only other contact, according to the article itself, was to call him on the Friday afternoon before the issue was published. These hardly qualify as good-faith efforts to hear Araújo’s side of the story.
Given that few people will read past the cover (the full version of the article is not even available online), Época‘s gestures toward responsible journalistic practice seem perfunctory. The second page of the article acknowledges that there’s no evidence that Rousseff knew about the plan to influence her. But the article waits until the very last paragraph to concede that “it would be premature” to say that Araújo had a role in the Petrobras scheme. If it’s so premature, one might ask, is a cover story justified?
Prosecutors, the article says, will clear the matter up. And truly, they should investigate every lead. But is Araújo actually under formal investigation? The cover says that he’s “in the sights of Car Wash,” but this phrase is vague enough that it could just mean his name had been cited.
Whether it actually has in any substantive way, beyond the negotiations that Época reported over Antunes’s plea bargain, is unclear.
Impeachment – a special moment for Brazil
Given that dozens of people are implicated in Lava Jato—including some with allegedly key roles in the scheme and great power in Brasília—why did Época choose to pour its energies into a story on Rousseff’s ex-husband? Is it an attempt to smear a president who, for all her many errors, appears to be one of the few clean politicians in Brasília?
As with Veja‘s pre-election cover, Época‘s intention may be beside the point. The effect is to rally public opinion behind the idea that Rousseff is corrupt—“dirt on top of dirt,” reads a typical comment on the story—just as impeachment proceedings are about to resume. Though of course, if corruption isn’t at issue in the proceedings, why does this matter?
It matters because impeachment is as much a political process as a legal one. The woeful state of the economy and outrage over corruption will weigh as much or more than evidence that Rousseff violated budget rules. New anti-government protests have been called for March, and Congress will be taking the temperature of the streets as it decides how to vote on Rousseff’s fate.
The press has an essential part to play in Brazil’s quest to root out corruption. But by exploiting a chaotic atmosphere and foregoing rigorous standards of proof, these magazines reduce journalism to a tool of political rivalry. They make corruption, a national problem, look like the problem of one government. That’s a disservice to the democracy they claim to be protecting.