It takes only a few minutes of weaving around buses and leaning into hairpin turns perched on a roaring mototaxi to reach the top of the Rocinha favela, which sprawls across a mountain just west of but culturally light years away from Rio’s high-gloss beach neighborhoods.
But as 23-year-old Michel Silva looks down on Rocinha, home to 150,000 people and his home turf, he sees a world of stories that he says Brazil’s mainstream media isn’t telling.
Beyond the poverty, violence, drug trafficking and clashes with the military police, he says there is culture, history, and stories of civic participation and everyday people just trying to get by — tales that are too often ignored even though nearly a quarter of Rio’s population, or about 1.5 million people, live in the city’s 1,000 favelas.
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So five years ago Silva and a few friends decided to start their own newspaper, delivered door-to-door to their neighbors. They call it Fala Roça (Roça Speaks) and they are part of a new wave of community journalists trying to bring the reality of life in Brazil’s favelas, or marginalized communities, to a wider audience.
In São Paulo about 70 young journalists are covering the favelas that ring a sprawling metropolitan area of more than 21 million people. But their blog called Mural is embedded in the website of Folha de São Paulo, the largest traditional newspaper in Brazil. It’s a different approach, but its goal is the same.
Silva says his relationship with journalism began through his father who was always an avid newspaper reader. When he was about 15, he began reading newspapers himself, and it was there that he read two years later that special security forces called Police Pacification Units would be sent to Rocinha and other crime-plagued neighborhoods.
“People thought it would be like World War III. They thought we would be under siege and some even laid in extra stocks of food,” he said. “It wasn’t like that.”
But it made him think about how Rocinha was often portrayed in the press, Silva said. “Yes, there are drugs here, but there’s also culture, art, stories that no one knows.”
He and six friends hatched their plan to bring out a full-color, eight-page newspaper six times a year for Rocinha, one of the city’s most established favelas.
Like many other favelas, which are often defined as shantytowns or slums, Rocinha has the snarls of illegally connected electric lines, irregular sewer and water hookups, and lots of substandard housing. But parts of the community differ little from other working-class neighborhoods.
Along the community’s zigzagging main drag — a one-time auto race course — there are drug stores, bakeries, grocery and appliance stores. Schools, daycare centers, a post office and a church also serve the community. The highest structure is a 15-story apartment building, nicknamed Empire State.
But most of the residents live in brick or concrete block dwellings along alleys and stairways that honeycomb the sides of Two Brothers Mountain. Some of the stairways and narrow passages are “privileged” because they get direct sunlight, said Silva, but others are dimly lit or strung with electric lights.
No one has an official address, so neighbors instruct those who don’t know Rocinha to meet them at a point of reference — the big jack fruit tree or the shop that sells live chickens and ducks — and then lead them to their homes.
But Silva and his friends move easily through the alleys and passageways of their community and distribute the paper by passing it out hand to hand. That personal touch, Silva said, is a good way to come up with stories. When one woman told him she hadn’t had any water for a week, it launched an investigation into Rocinha’s water supply.
The paper’s staff also writes about community events and profiles Rocinha’s residents such as a young unemployed couple who started a business selling frozen treats in the favela.
But last month a violent shootout between rival factions of a drug gang propelled Rocinha into the national headlines. In late September, the military police began patrolling the favela as gun violence continued and disrupted daily activities. Silva has been reporting on the impact on residents. For a week, he said on Twitter, the favela “virtually stopped” and one man lost his job after missing work for a week because the armed clashes prevented him from getting out of his home.
Such events have made the work of favela journalists more important than ever.
“When we started, people said we were crazy. They said, ‘You should do this online. Print is dying.’ But our idea is that in the favela, access to the internet is still challenging for a lot of people,” said Silva, who is the executive director, production director and a member of the reporting staff. The website, falaroca.com, features a digital version of the print editions.
The start-up funds came from a 10,000-reais ($3,177) grant. Silva took part in a program supported by the city that taught young people how to develop social projects, and at the end of the course, the five best ideas got 10,000 reais in seed money.
Since Fala Roça launched in 2013, Silva said it’s received some grant money and private donations, but funds are always tight. “With the economic crisis, there’s very little city money available for social projects and there’s a lot of competition,” Silva said.
Since the paper is distributed for free, it’s hard to keep up with the frequency, he said. Even though a local printer charges only 1,500 reais ($476) for a 5,000-copy edition, the last paper came out a year ago with the lead story headlined: What has the Olympiad left for Rio and Rocinha?
“For a favela newspaper with no money, that is a lot of money,” Silva said. The newspaper also is in the process of legalizing its status as a nonprofit association, which is also an added expense. BrazilFoundation, a charity that raises money for organizations and leaders working on projects to transform Brazil, has started an online fundraising campaign for Fala Roça.
Silva and his colleagues learned journalism and online publishing on the job. Their cellphones are their cameras, and Silva runs the paper via his personal computer. When he doesn’t know how to solve a layout problem or something else, he consults YouTube tutorials and online forums. Although he’s trying to learn English, he needs to put most of the information he gleans online through Google Translate.
All the reporters are volunteers and because they have other jobs, most can only work on the weekends.
Silva stitches together a living acting as a fixer for mainstream journalists interested in the favela, and he just finished his fifth story for the London newspaper The Guardian. He got that gig when he met the Latin American editor for the paper at a workshop and learned he was looking for a favela writer during the 2016 Olympic Games.
His latest Guardian story was about the legacy of the Olympics in Rocinha one year later. “No impact, nothing changed,” Silva said. “We say we need education; the authorities send police. We say healthcare; they say police.”
Lucas Veloso is another young community journalist who is quick to point out there are also interesting stories where he lives in Guaianases on the outskirts of São Paulo.
Veloso, 22, writes for the Mural blog, which was started in 2010 as an offshoot of a program started by Bruno Garcez , a Knight International Journalism Fellow, to train citizen journalists in the communities that ring São Paulo. Now it’s hosted by Folha de São Paulo. Around 70 young reporters pitch stories to an editorial committee and report from their communities.
Veloso recently wrote about the Haitian refugees who are joining immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay in Guaianases. As he walked around his neighborhood recently, he pointed out where the city recently painted over murals that touched on the migration theme because it saw them as graffiti defacing public spaces rather than as art.
Near the rail tracks, he indicated the site of a used-book and news stand that had been burned down during a concert. Local residents helped the popular owner rebuild the stand and restock it. It has been christened Resistencia (Resistance) and inspired a Mural story.
Not only do the Mural reporters share positive news from their communities but they also do investigative work.
Noticing there were unusually large gaps between trains and platforms along the routes that link peripheral neighborhoods to the city center, Mural reporters set out to measure the gaps at 91 stations. The largest gap they discovered was 46 centimeters (18 inches) and the average distance between trains and platforms was 7.09 inches.
Among the stations along the Coral line, which Veloso takes into the city for his day job at a public relations firm, the largest gap was 8.7 inches.
“This kind of reporting is very important for the people,” Veloso said. “Traditional reporters generally don’t take these trains. We use them everyday and see people fall and get injured. At the Luz station someone I know fell and people kept passing over her until they finally pulled her up. She had to undergo 20 physical therapy sessions.
“This is the perspective we bring to news coverage,” he added.
Some reporters who report on favela news disdain traditional media outlets because they think they sensationalize and stereotype their communities as bastions of violence and the bizarre. But Veloso isn’t one of them. “Mural wants to influence the coverage of the big media,” he said. “Some of us make a joke at Mural that we wish we didn’t have to exist. What we would like is even-handed coverage. There are nice things in Guaianases just like there are in rich neighborhoods.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi
Whitefield traveled to Brazil as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.