Brazil: Communities against Corruption

Almost two hundred Brazilian cities have ‘Association of Friends’ organizations that fight against corruption on the local level. Januária is a small town in the central-eastern part of the country where an investigative journalist Fábio Oliva started a similar association. Together with other journalists he held workshops for local youth who wanted to call local decision-makers into account for mishandling public budgets. Journalist Jamila Venturini talked to Atlatszo.hu over Skype about the situation in Januária and the workshops on the fight against corruption.

Climate and Corruption Strikes

“This region is not only affected by corruption but by complicated climate conditions,” says Jamila Venturini a journalist who has been working on projects in Januária for the last couple of years.

Januária is a small city in Minas Gerais state which is located in the central-eastern part of Brazil. According to the English Wikipedia article on Minas Gerais the state is the largest producer of coffee and milk, and many of the country’s presidents come from this area, including the current president Dilma Rouseff. Well, Januária didn’t make it to the Wikipedia article.

The city has about 64-65 thousand inhabitants. With this it is considered ‘countryside’, a city with this many citizens is still not big in Brazil.  In addition to this it is located in one of the poorest regions of the country. The climate is semi-arid, the citizens have to live long periods without rain. One of the main sources of income is agriculture, especially families try to produce enough for their own survival but the climate is not helping much with that. Some fishing goes on on the local river but not any part of the production industry is developed enough to secure jobs to Januária’s citizens who want to work. According to the official statistics the economy of Januária is mainly based on the services sector. At least, according to Ms. Venturini this region is famous for producing the best of the Brazilian alcohol cachaça.

This level of underdevelopment causes many struggles to the locals who suffer from things that are unknown to people living in Brazil’s big cities. The journalist says many of these problems are of a kind others in the country can’t even imagine, or the international news coverage would never go that far to show them. Many are living without electricity in their households, consequently it is hard for the locals to obtain and use modern communication means.

It is considered a historical fact that from a lot of poor cities f in the northeast of Brazil youth migrate to the south or to the south east, to big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The situation of those with low incomes changed under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who introduced several welfare initiatives and under his Zero Hunger program provided social support to the poor. This made him popular in regions like Januária’s but Ms. Venturini says the spending was the fuel for a nation-wide debate.

In 2011 Januária received R$ 43.822.044,77 from the federal government; the city’s budget consists mostly of the financial assistance coming from the federal government. The state government and the town’s own public services may be the source of another few million Brazilian reals. According to investigative journalist Fábio Oliva’s account in a 2008 documentary made by Ms. Venturini and her colleagues, the total budget of the town in 2008 was ca. R$48 million. At that time Mr. Oliva believed ca. 30 percent of this sum disappeared through corruption.

Between 2004 and 2008 Januária had six mayors. They should have had two for the terms 2004-2008 and 2008-2012 but between 2004 and 2008 a total of six people were announced as mayors of Januária. Ms. Venturini says most of them were accused of wrongdoing but not all of them were sentenced; some cases are still under investigation.

Josefino Lopes Viana mayor ended up in prison for money laundering and spending public money just as his own. His finance secretary, Fabricio Viana was a local businessman with a history of corruption cases involving former mayors. He transferred a notable sum from the city’s budget for education to an unknown person’s bank account. The mayor and the finance secretary were arrested but they were released some days later, and after a couple of years past Josefino Lopes Viana ran for mayor position again.

The revelations done by Asajan and Fábio Olivia led to the arrest and sentence of Fabricio Viana. His crime was contracting corrupt or fake companies with the municipality. The companies served for transferring money by applying for public tenders, they always won, and then over-priced the services, in the end they shared the profit among themselves. Usually the mayor and other local politicians.

An important person in the politics of Januária is the former mayor João Lima, who was accused of corruption during his last mandate. João Lima was elected to mayor 5 times so for a while he and his sons were involved in local decision-making as well. But when it turned out that Mr. Lima was taking part in a national scale corruption case of misusing health care budgets, the court ceased his term in 2007. He never tried to run again.

The biggest obstacle for Januária’s citizens longing for accountability is probably the fact that they don’t even know who are the officials dealing with the town’s affairs. The city’s website is not publishing the names of the officials so the citizens have to investigate on their own if they want to know who are sitting on the board of the local council. Ms. Venturini explained this ‘investigation’ is done by questioning one’s friends and neighbours. It’s a small town; in the end someone will know the answer.

The current mayor Maurílio Arruda was elected in 2008. Many locals like Fábio Olivia believe that his appearance is the sign of change in the citizens stance on politics. Mr. Arruda is a new face in the local decision-making, he was not part of the earlier circles governing the town and his degree in law has helped him in the battles with citizens. Since despite being a novelty he also had his own scandals; he was accused of buying votes at the elections. Asajan tried to prosecute him but the accusations were dismissed by the local court. His term ends this year. Januária will hold municipal elections in autumn.

Corruption Hits the Most Important Areas

Seven years ago an investigative journalist, Fábio Oliva had enough of watching how corruption was destroying his hometown Januária.  As a young person he had left Januária for Montes Claros; a bigger city with more job opportunities but when his father died in an ambulance car on the way between Januária and Montes Claros the shocking consequences of corruption tipped the balance to taking steps against corruption in his native town—where he never moved back. “The only cause for this reality – backwardness, underdevelopment, lack of medicine and doctors, an inadequate hospital – is corruption,” he said in an interview. But his father’s heart attack wasn’t the only reason; his brother living in Januária asked him to help the locals in the fight against corruption. A dozen of people gathered and started the Friends of Januária Association (Asajan) which has been fighting against corruption and monitoring public expenditures in Januária for almost eight years now. To support their work in the meantime Mr. Oliva started his studies in law.

In the same interview Mr. Oliva talks about his observation that “corrupt politicians prefer to withdraw money from the most important areas: health[care] and education”. He is convinced that letting the children grow up without proper education and knowledge about their democratic rights is the goal of corrupt politicians; to avoid being called into account for their activities. Mr. Oliva considers this the long-term effect, since the short-term consequences are the kind of events that lead to his father’s death on the way between two hospitals: “there are no gloves to undertake medical procedures, there are no syringes, there is no medicine, there is no doctor (because they do not want to work if they do not get paid)”.

Mr. Oliva and the members of Asajan started to investigate corruption cases themselves, following the example of about 180 other Brazilian towns which run Association of Friends organizations. Their method is to gather all available evidence and hand it to state attorneys who work on corruption cases at the Public Prosecution Office. Sometimes Asajan uses the Association of Friends network to collect information on allegedly corrupt companies in other states, sometimes whistleblowers just walk up to them with their information. Like the health councilor did when the organization started its work. She appeared with three boxes full of documents she copied when she bumped into something fishy at work. A new source of information for Asajan is Brazil’s new freedom of information law which came into effect in May.

Empowering Young Citizens

Fábio Oliva knew the journalists Amanda Rossi and Jamila Venturini because they interviewed him for their documentary on Brazil’s Association of Friends organizations.

Ms. Venturini who talked to Atlatszo.hu is now living in Buenos Aires doing her master’s degree in Social Sciences. Before she worked for Article 19 in Brazil and covered stories on intellectual property, human rights and access to information.

In September and October, 2011 she and Ms. Rossi were in Januária and together with Mr. Oliva they held a series of workshops for young citizens who wanted to contribute to making the town more transparent by using citizen media tools. A total of 13 participants took part in the Citizen Journalists of Januária workshops. Applications poured in from all ages but they selected young people who were active in small communities for example participated in activities at the local church.

From the Rising Voices micro-grant they won they held six weekend workshops where the participants learned what makes an article fair and balanced; what citizen journalism was and how to find information in public databases to support their stories. They have published interviews with the workshop’s guest speakers and covered stories in Januária to practice. These articles were published on their website and were distributed in Januária in the form of free a newspaper.

“I was discussing with the participants that they have to prove [the facts] because they were eager to publish on corruption and because this is an issue in Januária. They heard about illegal constructions from someone but we told them to prove what they were saying and that makes them credible. And especially because they could be accused of defamation. Fábio has been accused many times but won many cases. There is still civil defamation [in Brazil] which goes with high fees,” says Ms. Venturini recalling the topics they discussed with the participants at the workshops.

The young participants wrote stories from Januária’s life; they covered the problems of garbage collection in the city, the production of cachaça and the state of the local hospital. The group had to face the passive resistance on behalf of the public authorities who were contacted. Some of the officials kept on postponing the interviews over the phone and then just forgot to answer the requests.

According to Ms. Venturini probably the biggest challenge for the citizen journalists was getting familiar with the public databases and starting to think of filing freedom of information requests. In November, 2011 Brazil became the 89th country to implement a law on freedom of information. The new law came into effect in May, 2012 but according to a study of Brasil Aberto, the citizens of Brazil were not eager to try their new power and another research found only five percent of Brazilians knew about it.

Before, the public bodies had to answer freedom of information requests but there wasn’t a specific law regulating their obligations hence those organizations that denied disclosing information were hardly held accountable. Ms. Venturini notes journalists sometimes received documents that were hard to process and analyze because of their format. This is again something that needs to be regulated precisely in a country’s freedom of information law.

Although bloggers play an important role in exposing Brazilian corruption stories—especially journalists like publishing their findings on this platform—their impact is restricted in an environment where mainstream media (influenced by politicians and economic groups) still takes the lead.

The situation is not much different at the local level. In Januária the local daily belongs to the sister-in-law of the former mayor. “Even if it is not directly related, indirectly it is the propaganda of the bodokyistration,” says Ms. Venturini. “We wanted to develop an alternative media. The group [of participants] made T-shirts, business cards for themselves and started spreading the word around on the social media.”

The blog run by Januária’s citizen journalists is celebrating its first year soon with a special coverage on local elections.

Marietta Le