In the largest country in Latin American, the media has faced a major distraction in the coverage of COVID-19: the president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro himself. A recent analysis of printed editions of ten newspapers from Brazil’s most populated state capitals shows that the attention has been divided between the health crisis and a political crisis caused by Bolsonaro’s actions that have no connection to the novel coronavirus. Out of 97 cover stories from the April 20 to April 29 period, 47 were related to the pandemic, but 50 were not. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in Brazil continues to escalate.
The newspapers considered in this analysis are Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S. Paulo, Valor Econômico from São Paulo, O Globo from Rio de Janeiro, Zero Hora from Porto Alegre, Correio Braziliense from Brasília, Estado de Minas from Belo Horizonte, A Tarde from Salvador, O Povo from Fortaleza, and Jornal do Commercio from Recife.
Throughout April, instead of focusing on the fight against the novel coronavirus and on what the federal government could do to help cities and states preserve lives, Jair Bolsonaro has promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine – malaria treatments that have not gathered any consensus as effective drugs against COVID-19. Bolsonaro has said multiple times, from March to May, that the economy should be reopened, though the COVID-19 curve in Brazil has not yet flattened. Furthermore, the president has openly spoken out against the social distancing measures recommended by the World Health Organization, and defended by then-Health Minister Luiz Mandetta. These events, along with the lack of tests, beds, and equipment, have been a key focal point for mainstream media.
However, in the past two weeks, cover stories that were mostly dedicated to COVID-19 shifted in part due to the political crisis instigated by Bolsonaro. In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Bolsonaro attended a protest against democratic institutions, fired the well-rated Health Minister who was defending social distancing, and sacked the director of the Federal Police, which consequently led to the resignation of the popular Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro.
A strong reaction followed these actions. The Office of the Prosecutor General opened investigations with authorization from the Federal Supreme Court, an occurrence which has captured the media’s attention. The first line of inquiry is to determine whether congressmen and businessmen linked to the president engaged in anti-democratic behavior by weakening institutions and fostering dictatorship. The second inquiry is to investigate Bolsonaro’s alleged political interference in commanding the Federal Police (Brazil’s equivalent of the FBI), an accusation made by the resigned Minister of Justice Sérgio Moro. Moro is famous in the country as a former judge ruling in Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) -- a series of corruption cases that led to the conviction of influential politicians and businessmen including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In light of these events, opposition parties, civil society groups, a former ally, and even the Brazilian Press Association are now asking for Bolsonaro’s impeachment.
This political drama split the attention of both national and local newspapers over the analyzed period. The headline from O Estado de Minas on April 25 sums up both topics: “Pandemics in Brazil, pandemonium in Brasília.” On April 29, for the first time, with attention on the political crisis forgone, all ten newspapers converged in their cover story: Brazil surpassed China in the death toll, reaching 5,017, and the president, asked about that, said: “So what? What can I do?” (author’s translation). As of April 28, among the ten nations with the highest number of cases, Brazil was the only one where the curve was rising rather than flattening. The current numbers are available here.
Before the criminal investigations opened and the number of COVID-19 deaths exploded, headlines of the ten newspapers included in the analysis reflected the president’s pressure to reopen the economy. Some cover stories from April 20 to April 24, like those in O Globo on April 23 and in Jornal do Commercio and in O Povo on April 22, zoomed in on discussions about relaxing quarantine measures, restarting economic activities sustained by decree, and reopening schools. Yet there were also headlines regarding the mandatory use of masks (A Tarde, on April 23, and Correio Braziliense, on April 24), the drama of the overcrowded intensive care units (A Tarde, on April 22, and Jornal do Commercio, on April 21) and initiatives to reduce contagion in order to avoid the healthcare system collapse.
Overall, considering the last few months, Brazilian media shows ways in which the president is hindering efforts made by cities and states to curb the virus’ spread by encouraging citizens not to strictly adhere to quarantine measures. Folha de S.Paulo’s headline on April 19 read, "Without a general protocol, on-and-off social isolation is prolonged and deepens crisis."
Nonetheless, more than news stories, the editorials of major national newspapers, Folha, O Estado de S. Paulo, and O Globo are very critical of Bolsonaro and his politicization of the health crisis. Brazil’s president has been portrayed as an ineffective leader in denial against best practices recommended by national and international medical communities. When Bolsonaro fired Health Minister Luiz Mandetta, Folha de S. Paulo wrote in an editorial on April 16, "The President of the Republic, converted by his ignorance and pusillanimity into the greatest obstacle to the coordination of health efforts, insists on wasting the energy of a country in an emergency."
O Estado de S. Paulo went further on April 25 writing, “Jair Bolsonaro’s government is conducted under the sign of Thanatos, the god of death in Greek mythology. It has always dedicated itself to destruction - first, of real and imaginary enemies; then, of its own allies, including ministers who devoted their loyalty to him; and, after all, of himself, making him unfeasible as president. It is necessary to stop this escalation before Bolsonaro finally destroys, at last, the country itself.”
Even the debate over medicine played out in political pages, as the president - who until recently had been calling the disease a "little flu" - decided to recommend the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, despite lack of scientific consensus over the drugs’ efficacy.
In a way, Bolsonaro’s actions are similar to those of President Trump in the United States. Bolsonaro is politicizing and polarizing a medical debate, painting those on the right as supporters of a drug that could save lives, while those on the left are criticizing an effective solution simply to act against the president. With this disinformation effort, the president managed to shift the narrative after initially being associated with failures to act in containing the virus’ spread and denying the crisis. By doing so, he found the energy to mobilize his political base in his support. Media has had difficulty containing this duality, resulting sometimes in "bothsidesism" by giving the same space to different views on a subject that is not a matter of opinion, but science. It is as though the debate is personified in the president, who himself is contradictory. He also received support from the anti-vaccine movement.
Another facet of the crisis is the financial difficulty faced by private-owned Brazilian newspapers despite a relevant increase in the number of visitors on their websites. According to Folha de S. Paulo for instance, its website reached 70 million visitors in March -- a historical record – indicating that readers valued the content being published. Fact-checking agencies have also been working well, debunking articles promoting false COVID-19 treatments, like tonic water and alkaline food.Yet many media outlets find themselves in a difficult financial position because of reduced advertising revenue, which remains a significant source of income for news sources. It is particularly difficult to circulate newspapers nationally with airline crisis and travel restrictions. Some media analysts are of the view that the COVID-19 crisis may accelerate many newspapers’ full migration to online platforms. An editorial by O Estado de S. Paulo in April mentioned the possibility of online migration, though the article did not mention whether O Estado de S. Paulo was also considering that possibility.
Some newspapers like O Tempo, from Belo Horizonte, are firing reporters while others like O Estado de S. Paulo have proposed 25 percent salary cut for workers over the next three months, with a corresponding reduction in working hours by 25 percent as well. The free newspaper Metro stopped distribution altogether. The ad-relying business model is thus in a precarious situation and news outlets’ biggest fear right now is the further disappearance of local newspapers in a moment when they are more important than ever. During such a time of crisis, it is essential for citizens to have a clear vision of its city panorama. A “news blackout” may cost additional lives, not to mention even less control over local public agents and their accountability.
Breno Pires is a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and an investigative reporter for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. He has covered the courts and politics in Brazil since 2016.