The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Brazilian Journalist Felipe Altenfelder Silva

by Annie Piotrowski    /  July 29, 2014  / No comments

Felipe Altenfelder Silva. Credit: Esteban Marchand via Flikr.


The Freedom Chat is a new video series by Sampsonia Way featuring interviews with journalists and other media workers facing censorship and repression in their home countries. In these Q&A’s, conducted via video chat, journalists talk with Sampsonia Way about press freedom, anti-free speech legislation, and exile.

In the Freedom Chat Transcripts, we share the entire interview with our subjects, including material not included in the video.

As the international media examines Brazil in light of the recently concluded 2014 World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, the citizen journalism collective midía NINJA uses social media to provide unfiltered coverage of Brazil’s social inequality and growing protest movements.

In this Freedom Chat, Sampsonia Way speaks to midía NINJA member Felipe Altenfelder Silva about how media activism can create counter narratives that respond to Brazil’s diverse population and movements for social change.

What influenced the creation of midía NINJA?

We started Midía NINJA, a free media activism-journalism platform, in early 2013. However, it did not come from a single idea; instead, it was the result of events during the last twelve to fifteen years, an era when the Internet became rooted as a reality.

In 1999, the anti-globalization fight in Seattle generated ideas about free media that inspired collectives in Brazil like CMI (Centro de Mídia Independente) and Colectivo Intervoz, as well as the Rádio Comunitária in the favelas and the Free Radio movement in the universities.

Additionally, in 2002, President Lula da Silva appointed Gilberto Gil as a Minister of Culture. Gil is one of the biggest legends in Brazilian black music, and as Minister of Culture he worked to support media production in smaller cities.

Inspired by these events, in 2005, my colleagues and I created Fora do Eixo (Outside the Axis), an independent music collective. At that time, the music industry was failing due to its refusal to work with Napster or explore new ways to share music and knowledge through digital platforms. Given the opportunity to become a new generation of Brazilian cultural producers, we started to make independent festivals and created a network to put people in contact to work with independent music production.

How did you transition from music to journalism?

Five years after we started Fora do Eixo, we realized that in the same way we built a network to start independent festivals, we could build a new venue for journalism and grassroots communication. Once we put things together—boom, our network blew up! Working with journalists throughout Brazil, we used social networks and new tools like streaming, podcasts, web radio, and web TV.
We formed collective houses. We organized cultural activities that occupied public space, became involved in marches and political acts, and connected with traditional social movements.

That’s when we found that the best way to collaborate with social movements was to provide visibility.
We started covering movements that fought for the environment, LGBTQ rights, new drug policies, human rights, urban mobility, and the democratization of communication.

Our first live transmission with twit-casting was during a protest of the Confederation Cup. There was no traditional press covering that moment. That night, 180,000 people watched our transmission.

What are the greatest impediments to the average Brazilian’s access to truthful, in-depth reporting?

Brazil has a very monopolized media system that has been integrated into the political system for decades. Because the media conglomerates finance political campaigns, they lose focus on social interests and don’t look deeply into issues.

For example, last June, huge crowds took to the street with political demands. Imagine one million people protesting in São Paulo. When the protestors returned to their homes to watch the news, a reporter, who was not on the streets but in a studio miles away, said something like “Oh, who has time to be on the streets? They must not have jobs.”

Since Brazil has a history of extreme social inequality, the people must act for themselves. We wanted to have a free media platform that talks to people that are not our activists and are not involved in social movements.

How does your organization speak directly to the concerns of Brazilian citizens in the favelas?

We are not trying to go to the favelas to “rescue” poor people. However, since we use cheap technology that makes a lot of impact with few resources, our system works in the favelas.

One of Brazil’s most pressing human rights issues is ending the military police that remain from decades of dictatorship. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have higher murder rates than Gaza, and most murders are committed by the police. This is an urgent issue for all Brazilians, but people in favelas bear the greatest burden.

How do the NINJAS navigate the tension between reporting on dangerous stories and protecting themselves as they report?

It is something that we learned in practice, especially last year when the Pope visited Brazil. During this incident, we generated enough visibility to have the same kind of safety that traditional media gives to professional reporters.

There were many protests criticizing the money that the government spent to receive the Pope. On the day that he arrived, there was a march of 15,000 people. It was peaceful until the police used covert cops to throw Molotov cocktails against their own riot police so that they could use tear gas and guns. To justify the situation, they arrested a random protestor, a black man.

That same night, they arrested one of the NINJAS while he was twit-casting. When he was put into the police car, it went viral. On the streets, somebody screamed, “Hey, police are taking the ninja!” and crowds marched to the police department where the “ninja” was taken. The NINJA reporter was able to publicize the unlawful arrest, exposing the covert coops and forcing the police to respond to demands for protestor’s freedom.

Police know that if they arrest a NINJA, they will have to deal with a lot of exposition. We don’t do anything that gives them reason to arrest us. Every time that they do, it is an abuse of authority.

Do you consider yourself an activist as well as a journalist?

I consider us to be media activists, and I believe that our work is journalism.

You can understand journalism as a commodity that gives companies an audience for their advertisements. Alternatively, you can understand journalism as a public service that gives visibility to important questions related to the necessities of peoples’ lives. Good journalism increases the capacity of local communities to promote their own social transformation.

The traditional media always say “Oh, we are objective.” But everybody knows that they work according to their interests. So we do the opposite: point of view journalism instead of “objective” journalism. Each NINJA has an opinion, and in most of the cases this opinion is different from 90% of the traditional mass media.

What are your hopes for the future of midía NINJA?

Since most activists need to have a regular job, they have limited time to divide between having fun and supporting a cause. When you work like that, it’s best to have a very clear goal. In contrast, we have found a way to live our beliefs 24 hours a day. We are more concerned with having the possibility to continue this instead of having a clear goal for the future. However, we want to show people that it’s possible to do activism in this way. Given the World Cup and Brazil’s visibility, we have the opportunity to connect with people in Latin America and all over the planet after seven years of intense work in Brazil.

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