How WikiLeaks Revitalized Brazil's Media
Folha was one of two national newspapers in Brazil that received the cables from WikiLeaks. Deciding with Assange that an additional outlet would foster competition and produce more reporting, we chose O Globo, a Rio-based daily, as the second partner. My challenge was to persuade the two newspapers—both so eager for “exclusivity” and profits—to agree to the arrangement.
Folha’s management was not happy, but they complied. On December 5, Fernando and I met in a restaurant in the center of São Paulo with Tatiana Farah, a special reporter for O Globo. The conversation was friendly; we agreed to jointly determine the themes and then write separately about the same cache of documents every day. The trove of records was so rich that we could do this until the beginning of the New Year; afterward, all parties would be free to write about whatever they wanted.
While O Globo and Folha selected teams of experienced reporters to write about their areas of specialty, I worked alone, sleep-deprived, in a tiny apartment in the center of São Paulo, trying to keep up the pace of reporting and writing. In four months, I would publish no fewer than eighty articles. Between my stories and those in Folha and O Globo, the WikiLeaks cables produced more than 150 articles related to Brazil.
Among the key stories generated by this collaboration:
§ During the Bush years, US officials repeatedly requested that Brazil take the lead in isolating Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—even proposing that Brazil engage in espionage against him. In a meeting on March 14, 2005, then–US Ambassador John Danilovitch asked Foreign Minister Amorim to “consider institutionalizing a more intensive political engagement” on Chávez, including “a dedicated intelligence-sharing arrangement.” “We do not see Chávez as a threat,” Amorim replied.
§ The Obama administration was irritated by Brazil’s relationship with Iran, especially following its attempts to mediate talks about Iran’s nuclear inspections. “The [government of Brazil]…still does not fully grasp the regional and multilateral dynamics surrounding Iran and the Middle East, and its frenzied effort to reach out to all players in the region is increasing the potential for missteps and misunderstandings,” wrote Lisa Kubiske, the chargé d’affaires to the Brazilian mission, on November 6, 2009.
§ José Dirceu, Lula’s right-hand man, who left office in 2005 following accusations of corruption, met with US diplomats twice after the scandal. In a meeting with the US consul in São Paulo, Dirceu bitterly admitted to illegal fundraising by his party and seemed to blame the president. “Lula does not do much on his own initiative,” he was quoted as saying, “and should have paid more attention to cultivating legitimate corporate funding sources in the wake of [the] 2002 election.”
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By the middle of January 2011, it was clear that the two Brazilian partners were losing interest in the cables and were dedicating less and less space to “Cablegate” stories. I started a blog, which attracted a strong readership. That’s how Phase II of the WikiLeaks coverage—engaging the nontraditional media—began.
Rather than deciding myself what to cover, I let the public select issues that were of interest to them. Using the WikiLeaks database of Brazil-related cables, I requested that my readers submit topics to search for in the collection. After conducting a search, I would send the relevant documents to a group of bloggers, who would then publish stories based on them. This generated some interesting articles—revealing, for example, the meetings between US officials and opposition leaders like presidential candidate José Serra, who hinted at a closer relationship with Washington should he win. Neither Folha nor O Globo, who were seen as harsh critics of the Lula government, published any stories about opposition leaders.
As the bloggers’ interest in the cables faded by mid-March, with hundreds of documents yet to be reviewed, I and a group of women journalists decided to create Brazil’s first nonprofit center for investigative journalism, called Publica. Based on similar US media organizations like ProPublica, it would publish stories that could be freely reproduced under a creative-commons license. Our first challenge was to review the remaining WikiLeaks documents and see what stories they held.
Staffing a temporary newsroom with fifteen volunteer journalists, we were able to publish another fifty articles based on the cables. My favorite new revelation was the secret transfer to Brazil by the United States of thirty Drug Enforcement Administration personnel who had previously been expelled from Bolivia for spying and aiding the opposition. The new stories created another stir in the Brazilian press. But more than that, they proved it was possible for an independent investigative group to match the traditional news outlets when it came to producing professional journalism—and to following the story where the mainstream media would not take it.
The impact of WikiLeaks on the Brazilian media community has been unmistakable: within a couple of months, articles based on documents from Brazil’s dictatorship period started popping up in the press. Folha de S. Paulo started its own WikiLeaks-type section, the “FolhaLeaks,” and established an investigative unit in Brasília. More investigative stories are being produced by both the traditional and the independent media. A year later, corporate media outlets such as Globo and Grupo Bandeirantes—major TV networks in Brazil—are fighting to sponsor the annual congress of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism. And Publica is now up and running.
The response to the leaks also demonstrated that, more than twenty-five years after the end of military rule, the Brazilian public is ready and eager to advance toward a more transparent and accountable society. Brazil’s “Cablegate” generated a much-delayed debate about the lack of transparency in government and the need for a Freedom of Access Law. Journalists’ associations ramped up their demands for such a law to be adopted at once. Fernando Rodrigues, who was a director of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism, wrote an article criticizing how slowly the law was being debated in Congress. When the president of the Senate, José Sarney, declared that documents should remain secret because “we cannot do a WikiLeaks of Brazilian history,” he was heavily criticized.
President Rouseff signed the Freedom of Access Law on November 18, 2011. It took effect May 16, 2012—a date that could become a historic landmark for Brazil’s political culture—and the law is already being used widely by reporters investigating government-related stories.
Indeed, the real legacy of Brazil’s WikiLeaks experience will be its impact on the country’s journalistic community. It showed that investigative journalism exposing the secretive inner workings of government and advancing the cause of transparency is not only critical but also exciting and cool. Today, it is clear that a vibrant investigative media can provide substantive information to the Brazilian public—who want to know and have the right to know.