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Wasteland: A First Look

These citizen journalists in Rio's poorest areas are fighting police brutality with smartphones

Papo Reto, Portuguese for “Straight Talk”, formed as a citizens’ journalist collective in 2010 in response to government efforts to rid Complexo do Alemão – one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas –of the drug-trafficking gang Comando Vermelho. We met the group in April as it celebrated a bittersweet victory. Thanks to Papo Reto’s reporting on the killing of 10 year-old Eduardo de Jesus, allegedly at the hands of police, the government opened a formal investigation into what happened. For the young members of Papo Reto, this is the first time they’ve seen such a display of accountability.

Raull Santiago, a founding member of the collective, explains that “killings have happened here for years, but because of the democratization of social networks, alternative communication, and everyone with access to mobile phones, things have become a lot more visible.”

In 2010, Papo Reto set out to document life in Alemão in ways that would counter mainstream media depictions. However, in November of that year, military police moved from their security checkpoints at the favela’s entrances to become an occupying force at the heart of the community. As the military police edged out the long-standing order established by the gangs, violence surged, gun battles erupted, and the unclear rules of engagement put everyday people ended in the crosshairs.

Since occupation, the “stray bullet” has become a catch-all explanation for the rapid rise in civilian deaths in Complexo do Alemão. Police invariably blame gangs for these mysterious deaths, but favela residents who witness the shootings say otherwise. Confronted with this grim reality and armed only with smartphones Papo Reto embraced the more urgent cause of documenting police violence.

2015 has been a particularly bloody year in Alemão. During 100 days of uninterrupted conflict in Alemão, Santiago says that the Brazilian government’s only solution seems to be more police, “They would not interact with, or respect initiatives that already existed. They did not have any alternatives except weapons.”

Through social media like Facebook and WhatsApp, Papo Reto offers fellow residents alternative ways to stay safe and hold police accountable. Their WhatsApp group is called “Papo Reto and Residents.” On this forum, taxi drivers, business owners, and residents from every part of Alemão share important hyperlocal information about the location of shootouts and other possible dangers, says Santiago.

Lana de Souza explains that the fact that Papo Reto’s members are born and raised in Alemão has helped them earn the trust of their neighbors: “We are residents like everyone else. They see us as equals. So, it’s a more intimate relationship.” The level of access enjoyed by Papo Reto means that they fill a void in the heavily corporatized media landscape. They can report on the kinds of stories that almost never make the headlines.

The dangerous conditions of the favela make it practically impossible for outsiders to access crime scenes or document police activities. But the stigma associated with the favela also accounts for the mainstream media’s failure to attend to violent death in the favelas. “No matter how clear the evidence is,” explains Taiña de Madeiros, they’ll always say, “‘It happened in the favela, they probably deserved it, to hell with them.’ So we have to make a lot of noise, to show that a video can be used as evidence.”

For all the advantages of access, members of the collective must also contend with the dangers inherent to citizen journalism. “Walking through the Favela we see that many people talk to us, saying they appreciate our work… While that’s good, it can also be very bad. Because we are very clearly exposed,” says Renata Trajano. Working in their own communities means that they are easily recognizable, which puts them at risk of being targeted, hurt, or killed.

When approaching activists and other favela residents, members of Papo Reto report that the police increasingly confiscate cameras in order to delete potentially damning evidence. And for good reason. There is a growing list of cases, in which video evidence that contradicted official police accounts resulted in investigations, indictments, and even convictions for officer-involved killings in Brazil’s favelas.

Recently, O Globo – Brazil’s largest media conglomerate – tapped Santiago as a correspondent in Complexo do Alemão, a sign that perhaps mainstream media outlets are beginning to pay attention and value the embedded nature of Papo Reto’s work.

Of his new role, Santiago says, “This is a new moment, not just for me, but for everyone working in communications. I’m a favelado speaking into a microphone of the greatest power.”

Video Credits:
Camera: Matias Maxx, Patrick Granja, Carlos Coutinho
Producer: Orlando de Guzman

Reporter: Tim Pool
Editor: Luis Dechtiar
Research: Lorien Olive

Text Credits:
Written by Orlando de Guzman and Lorien Olive

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