How WikiLeaks Revitalized Brazil's Media
Brazil's President Rousseff talks to journalists. REUTERS /Ueslei Marcelino
As the Boeing 777 from London arrived at the gate of Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo on December 2, 2010, its passengers queued up to deplane, many with the local newspaper under their arm. “Brazil fears terrorism at the 2016 Olympics, says US Embassy” blared the headline of the daily Folha de S. Paulo—a front-page story generated from the first of tens of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables obtained and released by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Unnoticed among those passengers was a young woman with a backpack slung over her shoulder. Concealed within a bundle of messy clothing inside her bag was a pen drive containing nearly 3,000 sensitive cables to and from the US Embassy and consulates in Brazil between 2003 and 2010—a cache of documents provided by WikiLeaks.
This trove of records covered the two terms of President Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s progressive government and captured the policies, operations and diplomatic efforts of US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as those of the Brazilian government itself, at a time when the country was on the rise as a world-class economic and political power. As WikiLeaks-generated stories appeared in the Brazilian media in the ensuing months, the cables would reveal how the Bush White House curried favor with the country’s defense minister and military, how Bush tried to persuade Brazil to spy on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and how the Obama administration became increasingly uncomfortable with Brazil’s close relationship with Iran. Brazilians would learn some startling details about their own government as well.
Beyond the revelations themselves, “Cablegate” in Brazil would have a significant impact on the profession of journalism and strengthen the culture of transparency even as the country was starting to revisit the legacy of its military dictatorship. Brazil was the first South American country to receive the cables—thanks to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s strategic dissemination plan, and to that little pen drive.
I was a member of the team carefully assembled by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the initial publication of the cables on November 29, 2010. The goal was to build a network of local media partners in countries rich and poor that would make the stories go global. A task force of independent journalists would review the cables, write groundbreaking stories for the WikiLeaks website, and devise a strategy for other media outlets to investigate and report on the leaked documents.
Assange, the product of a cyberpunk culture based on collaboration and data sharing, formed his strategy around that philosophy, balancing it with an acknowledgment of the mainstream media’s traditional demand for exclusivity. WikiLeaks’ original partnership was with four major news outlets—the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel—that received the collection of 250,000 cables months in advance. A fifth, the New York Times, obtained them from the Guardian. These publications agreed to surrender their exclusive control over the material in January 2011. In the end, WikiLeaks was able to partner with more than ninety media outlets around the world.
I was one of the first journalists to reach Ellingham Hall, in Norfolk, England, where WikiLeaks had established its secret headquarters ahead of the “Cablegate” release. For a hectic ten days in November, I—along with other journalists, activists and lawyers—worked secretly around the clock at a table crowded with laptops and cellphones, drafting articles and discussing how to distribute the documents in January.
When it came to Brazil, however, time was of the essence. Lula was leaving office at the end of the year, so I argued that any cables exposing his administration should be brought to light as soon as possible. Assange and the WikiLeaks team agreed.
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Brazil has only a handful of national newspapers, all part of media conglomerates with political and economic interests that influence their coverage of national issues. Indeed, five companies, owned by just six families, control 70 percent of all Brazilian media outlets.
“Well, just give the cables to a progressive newspaper then,” Julian told me. “There aren’t any,” I replied.
There were, of course, skilled reporters in Brazil who could do a good job, even if we knew some of the stories would be biased and others might never reach the public. I called one such journalist, Fernando Rodrigues of Folha de S. Paulo, and asked if his employers would be willing to cooperate with WikiLeaks. “Yes, we are interested,” he replied. To maintain the exclusivity agreement with the European and US media partners, I explained to Fernando that I would write the stories in advance for the WikiLeaks site and then, appropriately enough, leak my articles along with fragments of the documents to Folha.
On November 29, just a couple of hours after El País broke the first cable story, Folha de S. Paulo published the initial WikiLeaks-generated article in Brazil. Headlined “Brazil disfarçou luta antiterror, dizem EUA” (Brazil disguised fight against terror), the story drew from secret US Embassy cables revealing that Brazilian authorities were arresting suspected terrorists but charging them with other crimes so as not to draw attention to their detention. Lula’s government denied the claims, and though the story died quickly, it was picked up by all of the country’s media outlets—newspapers, radio and TV—which were now thirsty for more WikiLeaks revelations.
The next day, I decided to run a story titled “My Friend Jobim,” about Lula’s defense minister, Nelson Jobim, and his multiple meetings with the US ambassador to Brazil. It was based on cables that revealed how the Bush administration had pursued a strategy of close contacts with Jobim and the Brazilian military in order to counterbalance the independent posture of the Brazilian foreign ministry (known as Itamaraty).
“Jobim continues to challenge the historic supremacy of Itamaraty in all areas of foreign policy,” reported Ambassador Clifford Sobel, calling him “unusually activist” in his defense of US interests. Over breakfast at Sobel’s home, according to one cable, Jobim confided that Itamaraty’s secretary general, Samuel Guimaraes, “hates the United States” and was “actively looking to create problems in the relationship.” It was one of many times that Jobim provided hostile gossip about Itamaraty and the foreign minister, Celso Amorim, to US diplomats.
Folha de S. Paulo received the same documents, but it didn’t focus on Jobim’s indiscretions, instead announcing in its headlines that US diplomats saw Itamaraty as an enemy. But my article, and the documents posted on the WikiLeaks website, prompted a series of left-leaning blogs in Brazil to call Jobim a “traitor.” The story then spread to more traditional outlets, creating a minor political scandal.
Jobim denied ever having spoken ill of his colleagues in the foreign ministry. Questioned by journalists, Lula said he would believe his own defense minister over the US ambassador. But the story tainted Jobim’s reappointment under Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff. Seven months into her tenure, Rousseff fired Jobim after he publicly made sexist remarks about two female cabinet ministers. He was replaced by Celso Amorim, the former foreign minister so severely criticized by Jobim in the cables.
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