Strategic Alternative Media at the Rio 2016 Olympics by Cerianne Robertson | February 2019

Police block protesters' path at the 'Exclusion Games' protest on the opening day of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo by Catalytic Communities (CC BY-NC 2.0).

"All of which is to say that I am tired, very tired, of reading negative stories about these Brazilian Olympics — the anger in the slums, the violence that continues (including the armed robbery of four American swimmers), the enduring gulf between rich and poor [...] These Olympics are good for Brazil and good for humanity, a needed tonic. Watch Usain Bolt or Simone Biles and feel uplifted.” – Roger Cohen, The New York Times

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote the words above on August 15, 2016, ten days into the 2016 Olympic Games. The "negative stories" he mentioned include some pretty serious issues, yet he called on his fellow reporters to give Brazil a break, implying that the particular moment of the Olympic Games should be free of negativity and social criticism.

By Clay Bennett | The Christian Science Monitor

Cohen's dismissive approach to negative stories around the Olympic Games isn't the rule among reporters, but it's definitely not the exception either. An ever-growing body of research has documented a trend for mainstream media to celebrate big sports events while ignoring, minimizing, or even condemning dissent. Olympics scholar Jules Boykoff wrote that ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Games the Vancouver Sun “pegged protesters as a collection of 'whiner and grumble-bunnies' who couldn’t 'hold their tongues even on a special occasion.'" Even Mitt Romney, a key player behind Salt Lake City's 2002 Games, received an earful from the press and fellow politicians on both sides of the pond just for describing some aspects of London 2012's preparations as "disconcerting." When activists and other critical voices do get coverage, the quantity of coverage of sports, athletes, and celebration can often drown them out. Consider the fact that NBC invests billions for Olympic TV rights; NBC and the corresponding TV rights holders in other countries have a clear interest in pushing the narrative that the Olympics are, as Roger Cohen said, "good for humanity."

Given that A) Olympics organizers consistently push the notion that the Games are good for cities, countries, and the international community, and B) evidence suggests mainstream media coverage has a tendency to celebrate the Olympic event, I developed a research project around the question of how Olympics critics respond.

RESEARCH QUESTION: What are the possibilities for contesting official and celebratory media narratives about the Olympic Games?

I studied two alternative media projects that built extensive critiques of the 2016 Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: 1) the dossiers on human rights violations produced by the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee of Rio de Janeiro activist collective, and 2) RioOnWatch.org, the favela-focused watchdog news site produced by the NGO Catalytic Communities (CatComm). I worked from 2014 to 2016 (and again from late 2017 to 2018) for CatComm as a writer, researcher, and editor, so while my research consisted primarily of interviews and document analysis conducted in early 2017, I naturally also drew on my experience as a contributor to RioOnWatch. As an experiment in how to format and present academic research, this multimedia report zooms in on the words, knowledge, strategies, and work of Rio activists that I believe can be most useful to activists in future host and bidding cities. (But if you're dying for a more traditional academic format or craving some theoretical reflections on media events and temporality, try this version in the International Journal of Communication instead.)

This report's guiding principle: the Popular Committee's dossiers and CatComm's RioOnWatch.org are both models that can and should be replicated and built upon by activists challenging future sports mega-events.

These two alternative media projects not only criticized the urban impacts of the ‘mega-event’ but also explicitly criticized the 'media event,' arguing that Olympics organizers used the dazzle of the global media spotlight to justify and distract from rights violations and inequalities in the service of global and local elites' interests. They claimed the mainstream media was largely failing to accurately represent the city’s transformations, so they produced their own research and reporting to address that perceived gap. At the same time, however, engaging mainstream media to get more visibility for critical counternarratives was still a core strategic activity for both groups.

Here's what's ahead:

  1. Introduction to the Popular Committee and the Dossiers
  2. Introduction to Catalytic Communities and RioOnWatch.org
  3. Challenges to official narratives
  4. Exposing mainstream media complicity
  5. An alternative approach to documenting the Olympic City
  6. Five strategies for engaging the mainstream media
  7. Conclusion — so what?
  8. Additional information
Image by the Comitê Popular

1. Introduction to the Popular Committee and the Dossiers

Rio de Janeiro's World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas) was an informal coalition of activists including academics, social movement members, residents of communities affected by Olympic developments, and NGO representatives. After the Olympics were awarded to Rio in 2009, the Popular Committee formed in part out of existing activist networks that had protested Rio's 2007 Pan-American Games. The Rio network also participated in a broader national coalition of Popular Committees of the World Cup, alongside activists from almost all of Brazil's World Cup host cities.

This national articulation of committees published its first dossier on human rights violations in late 2011, aiming to show the systematic nature of violations across the country as preparations got underway for the World Cup. Given Rio's unique status as a World Cup host and the Olympics host city, Rio's Popular Committee decided to produce a city-specific dossier. The first version was published in 2012 and was then updated in a new edition each year through 2015. Rio's Popular Committee also produced three more thematic dossiers: on the right to housing, the right to sport, and the rights of street vendors. It is important to note that the dossiers did not only denounce violations — they also offered a list of proposals for a more inclusive Olympic project and city.

Rio dossiers, in order from 2012 to 2015. The dossiers grew in size and acquired a more professional, glossy look over time. The final version was translated into English.
The Popular Committee "is mobilizing to resist the construction of a city of excess and to pressure to establish a full and democratic process of discussion about what the real legacy of the mega-events should be."* – Rio Dossier, 2012

When the first dossiers came out in 2011 and 2012, most Brazilian and international media were still fully optimistic about the country's mega-events and future. One Popular Committee activist told me:

"It was a period when everything appeared to be marvelous: Brazil growing and receiving the biggest world events. And then, people appeared who were raising a critical debate, who were raising a debate about transparency, wanting to have access to contracts. This group was able to organize to create a debate about the violations of rights. So that was something new."*

From the start, the dossiers were not just about compiling data that would be useful for the "concrete struggle," but also about disrupting the dominant narrative about what the World Cup and Olympics meant for Rio and Brazil. One activist explained:

"The objective, for me, was always very clear. First, to bring visibility to the violations of collective social human rights linked to the Cup and the Olympics. So, to denounce [...] Second, to construct a counternarrative about the Olympics. There was the official narrative: it's good for the city [...] It has a legacy. With the dossier, we were constructing a counternarrative that de-naturalized, that deconstructed the official narrative […] showing that the Olympics and the Cup reflected an exclusionary city project."*

The dossier series was only one of the Popular Committee’s many activities, which included protests, support for communities facing eviction, debates, press conferences, educational forums, and speeches in spaces like the United Nations Human Rights Council (see the 2013 video below), among other actions. But one activist explained the dossiers' centrality to the rest of the group's work:

"Those dossiers were the weight of all our processes. The whole debate was based on the dossiers […] It wasn’t enough just to talk. We had to do the whole research, in diverse areas, whether it was the question of removals, the question of the budget, the question of employment. We had something to say, to show, and this created a really big force."*

Activists didn't all agree about the nature and timing of the dossiers' impact. When I asked when the dossiers were most effective, some argued the impact grew over time as the media spotlight on Rio intensified and the depth of the dossiers developed, "gradually consolidating or constructing the counternarrative." Others in the group felt the dossiers’ relevance actually declined over time. The Brazil-wide protests in 2013, in which FIFA was a major target of demonstrators' ire, showed the Popular Committee's critiques were resonating with citizens more broadly; the mirage of 'marvelous' times for Brazil had already been shaken. Additionally, as the sports events approached, there was less time to prevent or alter the related development plans. With these two shifts in mind, some activists suggested the dossiers had less "relevance for the concrete struggle"* after the crucial first couple of versions.

2013 protests: "We want "FIFA standard" schools, metros, trains, buses, boats, and hospitals." Photo by Mídia Ninja (CC BY-NC 2.0).

One thing for sure — the dossiers changed substantially over the pre-Olympic years. One activist pointed out how chapter titles had changed from single word subjects like “Mobility” to more provocative phrases like “Urban mobility: transportation revolution for whom?” by the final edition. This activist hadn't personally supported the move towards a “more discursive tone,” but reflected:

"But it’s not something that I think was completely a mistake. It was the dossier produced in the closest moment, the end of 2015 just six months to the Olympics. So, it was already a moment when we could have more conclusions. In the beginning, back in 2010, 2011, we had an agenda more about pressuring for change [...] By the last one, [the Olympic City] was already all wrong. Everything had been done wrong."*

An important takeaway here is that over the course of the pre-Olympic years different opportunities were available to activists at different moments. Accordingly, the dossiers played a shifting role over time. In the beginning, they were a rare dissenting voice pushing for tangible change. Towards the end, they were a dissenting voice with strong evidence and arguments about a mostly completed project. Over time, Popular Committee participants also became increasingly aware of their role and reach in advancing critical narratives:

"In the beginning, it’s obvious you’re not a reference, you’re constructing that space. After […] I think the consciousness that we were a reference was stronger, and for this reason we decided to do [the last dossier] in English [in addition to Portuguese]. Because we knew the Committee would be sought out. We knew the Committee would be a reference for those wanting to criticize the Olympics."*
Image by Sam Faigen | RioOnWatch.org

2. Introduction to Catalytic communities and rioonwatch.org

When the Olympics were awarded to Rio de Janeiro in October 2009, the Rio-based NGO Catalytic Communities (CatComm) was a nine-year-old advocacy organization that had created and strengthened networks among community leaders from favela neighborhoods across the city. Some 1,050 leaders from 250 favelas had exchanged ideas and local solutions through the organization’s activities, from technology training workshops to an online “Community Solutions Database." Shortly after the Olympic announcement, the City announced 119 favelas would be removed. The NGO's director Theresa Williamson reflected:

"All of a sudden the most basic floor on which CatComm was based, which is that favelas have value and that they should be strengthened, all of a sudden the favelas we worked with were being threatened. Existentially."

In 2010 when CatComm organized a “Strategic Use of Social Media” course for favela residents, the team started a simple Wordpress site — RioOnWatch.org — where course participants could practice blogging.

"In May 2010, Catalytic Communities launched Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch (RioOnWatch), a program to bring visibility to favela community voices in the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. This news site, RioOnWatch.org, is our primary vehicle for publishing the perspectives of community organizers, residents, and international observers, in light of the fast-paced urban transformations that currently characterize Rio." – RioOnWatch.org homepage

In its “original call to action,” the site identifies a discrepancy between a certain image of the Olympic City — “initial positive press for policies intervening in the city’s favelas [...] and significant work on the part of the city administration to engender a positive image in the face of international public opinion” — and a more sobering reality: “escalating debate and conflict over policies which have proven only to exacerbate Rio’s infamous inequality.” The news site was designed in part to shine light on this mismatch between image and reality. Favelas were the focus, but the period of Olympic preparations and the accompanying government PR campaigns provided the context that created RioOnWatch.

Like the dossiers, RioOnWatch did not just denounce problems but proposed solutions. Favela residents’ ideas and projects to improve their own communities were a constant theme across articles.

Published in both English and Portuguese from its start, RioOnWatch.org changed visually over the pre-Olympic years but maintained a balance between critical reporting and positive, stigma-challenging content.

As evictions picked up in Rio, CatComm staff and volunteer interns began posting articles and videos about what they witnessed. In those first couple of years the team observed there was little to no evictions coverage by mainstream media. They also realized that due to the pre-existing CatComm network they had unique sources of information and access to the threatened communities. One of the core RioOnWatch objectives was always, as one staff member put it, “to document stuff that’s happening that nobody else is documenting, publicly.” When journalists from major international news outlets began contacting CatComm about its evictions reports, a more strategic vision for RioOnWatch emerged. Another staff member explained:

“We saw we would have a gap, a window, to support the international press to give visibility to questions about the favelas.”*

Much of CatComm's work in these pre-Olympic years aimed to use the unique global media spotlight on the city to challenge the decades-old stigmas around Rio's favelas. The inaccurate image of favelas as inherently violent, criminal, and impoverished places, the CatComm team argued, helped justify harmful government programs like evictions and violent police operations. Instead, favela qualities needed to be recognized and residents respected in order for effective development to take place. The presence of new foreign journalists in town, perhaps, offered an opportunity to shake up people's perceptions of these neighborhoods.

"The RioOnWatch program works to grow the participation of community journalists in reporting on Rio’s transformations. The program also dialogues with the mainstream and alternative press to engender a more accurate picture of favelas, their contributions to the city, and resident perspectives." – RioOnWatch homepage

The perceptions and experiences of favela residents in CatComm's network informed the critical assessments of the Olympic City that grew across RioOnWatch articles over the years. When RioOnWatch began, for example, many community leaders in CatComm’s network were optimistic about the state’s “Pacification” program, which installed permanent police units in select favelas to counter drug trafficking. It was billed as an essential step to increase the city’s security ahead of the Olympics. Staff members explained that this and other promised policies garnered “a lot of hope” among the favela residents in CatComm’s network, and because “our work is to reflect what people feel,” several early RioOnWatch articles contained cautious optimism. Over time, however, the focus on favela perspectives led the site to document a growing negativity towards the Olympics. Negative views ranged from skepticism and disappointment as proposed investments in favelas fell through, to intense anger at perceptions that Rio’s mega-events were driving development at the expense of the homes, health, and even lives of its poorer residents.

Many articles had no direct connection to the Olympics, but were more broadly about documenting the Olympic City. As one staff member explained:

"The Olympics were always this huge event on the horizon […] and more than the event of the Olympics, was the Olympic works and the remodeling of the city that was happening because of the Olympics, under the Olympic banner. The Olympic City."

A smaller set of articles had no direct connection to Rio's favelas but analyzed global trends such as patterns of rights violations across Olympics host cities. The same staff member reflected:

"It felt important to contextualize what was happening in the broader story — history — of how Olympics play out in host cities and the similarities that can be drawn between what happens in different cities. Because that knowledge helps the resistance against these kind of oppressive and abusive implementations that marginalize certain groups, because it’s a pattern that can be seen in all of the recent Olympic Games."

This sentiment reflects CatComm’s growing awareness of RioOnWatch’s unique position as a link between local stories and global audiences as well as between global contexts and local audiences. There was also an increasing demand among journalists and researchers for RioOnWatch to play that role. As Popular Committee participants felt a growing sense of the dossiers’ role as a “reference" over time, so too were CatComm staff building an understanding of RioOnWatch’s growing role as a reference on favelas in the context of the mega-events.

Two more key points about the Popular Committee and CatComm...

These groups were just two actors in a network of many individuals, communities, collectives, organizations, and platforms that produced critical media about the Rio Olympics in the years 2009 to 2016. These groups interacted in person across different spaces of protest and organizing in the city as well as across social media, where the content produced by one group was regularly shared by others.

It's important to note that both groups relied heavily on volunteer contributions, which kept the projects relatively low-budget. The dossiers — particularly those produced in the later years — received some funding to cover production costs but the contributors were volunteers, even as some worked on the dossiers in their capacities as academic researchers or NGO representatives. With a staff of no more than five at any time, CatComm's work would not have been possible without a rotating group of "solidarity reporters" and researchers on the ground in Rio plus hundreds of other volunteers, including translators, around the world. While contributors from favelas were paid for their pieces, CatComm estimates that nearly 90% of RioOnWatch articles were reported by volunteers.

Photo by Melito Junior | Mídia Ninja

3. Challenging official narratives

The dossiers and RioOnWatch both compiled a range of evidence of the Olympic preparations' negative impacts, particularly regarding the toll on the city’s poorest communities. This evidence was automatically a challenge to official narratives, since Rio's mayor and IOC officials claimed that the preparations for the Games would leave a transformative and positive legacy for the city. But in addition to presenting evidence of negative urban impacts, both media projects also explicitly deconstructed how the event organizers’ narratives misrepresented the Olympic City.

For example, the introduction to the final 2015 Rio dossier stated:

"Firstly, contrary to the discourse of City Hall, which tries to deny and conceal the cause of forced removals that are taking place, this report demonstrates that the removals connected to the Olympics go on affecting or threatening thousands of families, through coercion or institutional violence, gravely violating human rights, especially housing rights."

This final version of the Rio dossier included the word “discourse” twenty times across its nearly 200 pages, an increase from just six mentions in the 2012 version. This growth did not just reflect an increase in the overall length of the dossier, but instead reflected the Popular Committee's increasing recognition of how the Olympics organizers’ narratives played a role in justifying the form and impacts of the mega-event. The dossiers’ chapters on housing and the Olympics budget, for example, broke down the City’s own data to show what was missing and to argue the City manipulated data to support misleading narratives. Other phrases like “false premise,” “false argument,” and “fallacy” appeared throughout the dossier text as well, situating the IOC and government’s promises and claims in contrast to the array of documented human rights abuses.

Art for a 2013 protest against the "sale of Maracanã." The privatization of Rio's historic Maracanã soccer stadium was a key issue disputed by the Popular Committee (see the 2015 Dossier, page 68, for more). Image from the Comitê Popular Rio Facebook page.

The final dossier’s title engages the narrative dispute too. In August 2015 with one year to the Games, the IOC president released a statement saying he wanted the Rio Games to be “the most inclusive Olympic Games ever." A month later, Rio’s mayor built on the same language in an article in which he declared the Rio Olympics were the “Inclusion Games,” emphasizing the City’s aim to use the event:

“to transform people’s lives — above all, the lives of the poorest people.”*

When the Popular Committee published its final dossier in December 2015, one participating researcher explained that it was the mayor’s word choice that inspired her team to title the dossier: “Rio 2016 Olympics: The Exclusion Games." It was a direct rebuttal of the government and IOC’s messaging, arguing that the Olympic City under construction was, in fact, exclusive — a city that primarily served elite interests. Launched alongside the final dossier, a bilingual video with the same title outlined the contradictions between the language of the Olympic Charter and the reality on the ground in pre-Olympic Rio:

As you might imagine, the city government wasn't thrilled about the dossiers. The mayor referred to them as "those fraudulent dossiers," lashing out at the activist collective's credibility. The Popular Committee responded with a YouTube video defending its extensive research process, stating that "unlike the Mayor, we have nothing to hide." (Check the video settings for English subtitles.)

In a classic example of how groups in the Olympics resistance network in Rio collaborated, RioOnWatch reported on the Popular Committee's response — in English and Portuguese — and added English subtitles to the video to help it reach audiences beyond Brazil.

As for RioOnWatch, countless articles contrasted lofty government claims with the more sobering reality on the ground. Tags on the site like "misplaced public priorities" and "legacy myth" helped to organize the vast array of interviews and profiles, opinion pieces by favela residents, event reports, research findings, and analyses. Together, these articles constructed an image of pre-Olympic urban development policies and programs that trampled on the rights and neighborhoods of working-class citizens.

Another tag and phrase that cropped up across multiple RioOnWatch articles was "Para Inglês Ver," or, "for the English to see." The site explained:

“A 'para inglês ver' (PIV) law, policy or project is one which, from the outside, appears to address a problem, but which in practice is merely a superficial change, a temporary fix or public relations exercise intended to appease community interests and appeal to domestic and international public opinion.”
Inaugurated in 2011 and visible from the highway many tourists take from the airport, the R$210 million cable car system in the Alemão favela complex hasn't operated since September 2016. Photo by Bruno Itan | Coletivo Alemão (CC BY-NC 2.0).

To contextualize the phrase, one 2015 RioOnWatch article explained its origins in the Brazilian slave state and highlighted a range of ongoing government policies and investment projects that it argued were for show rather than real impact. This included "the mega-events legacy projects that generate pleasing soundbites but have little connection to reality.” It also included Mayor Eduardo Paes' 2012 TED talk, which received global acclaim. In it, Paes extolled the importance of investing in favela infrastructure and better integrating favelas into the city. The RioOnWatch article pointed out how his rhetoric "contrasted brutally" with the eviction of some 77,000 favela residents and the abandonment of the lauded favela investment program Morar Carioca (shortly after Paes won his 2012 reelection campaign).

Between 2009 and 2015 an estimated 77,000 individuals were evicted by the city government of Rio de Janeiro, according to the City's own data. These data were made public in part through the work of the Popular Committee's dossier researchers.

Another article, published 100 days before the Olympics, criticized a series of international awards the city had received for projects that had failed to actually accomplish the achievements for which they were recognized. Using data acquired with support from a city councilor's office, the article showed how the city’s marketing budget had skyrocketed from 2011 to 2015. It argued the international praise resulted more from this deliberate marketing effort than from a study of the actual impacts on the ground.

Graph from RioOnWatch.org: Values not adjusted for inflation. Before 2010, the marketing budget never exceeded R$1 million. The spike to R$88 million in 2011 was due to a four-year R$120 million contract, signed in 2010 but paid mainly in 2011, with Profissionais de Publicidade Reunidos LTDA. Data from FINCON.

Just over one week before the Games began, a resident of Ramos in Rio’s working-class North Zone wrote a “geographical analysis of the Olympic legacy,” which investigated the Mayor’s claim that “there has never been so much transformation for poor people [in Rio]." The writer's analysis showed overwhelming investment in wealthier regions of the city and the relative abandonment of poorer neighborhoods like his own.

Photo by Fernando Frazão | Agência Brasil

4. Exposing Mainstream media complicity

Mainstream media "clearly fills a role. It has a side — the side of promoting mega-events as a good thing."* – Popular Committee activist
"The political and business ties in between these mega-companies are an influence on the editorial line that they take." – CatComm staff member

Perceptions of media bias were present early on in the dossiers and RioOnWatch. A series of RioOnWatch articles in 2010 titled, “The 2016 Olympics: A Win for Rio?” contained optimism about some proposed legacies but also an early critique of evictions and mainstream media coverage:

"Much like George Bush’s “you’re with us or against us” mentality, efforts at fighting evictions have been covered by the mainstream media, since last October, as practically traitorous."

Even six years ahead of the actual Olympics event, then, RioOnWatch already reflected a perception that mainstream media were filling the “booster” role. As the Games drew closer, a RioOnWatch series that critiqued the "best and worst international reporting on favelas" began including examples of how some foreign reporters had bought into official narratives about the Olympics' positive impacts.

The Popular Committee also argued the mainstream media took too rosy a view on the city’s promised legacy projects. In all versions of the Rio dossier, the introduction stated:

"Since the moment in which the choice of Rio de Janeiro as the 2016 Olympics host was announced, the mainstream media, politicians and several analysts have been emphasising the opportunities from investment growth in the city, highlighting the possibilities in solving large problems such as those in urban mobility and the recovery of degraded spaces for housing, commerce, and tourism, as in the case of the harbour area."

This passage suggested "the mainstream media" had largely adopted the event organizers’ definition and interpretations of the Olympic project. Interviews with Popular Committee members revealed they fully acknowledged differences in reporting quality among specific journalists and outlets, and between national and international media, but still felt overall frustration with the mainstream media’s reporting on the Olympic City.

There was a sense among the dossier and RioOnWatch authors that international mainstream media were too easily distracted by relatively unimportant issues. Several people I interviewed expressed exasperation with foreign journalists' perceived focus on the question of whether the infrastructure and logistics of the Olympic Games would be ready in time. One individual involved in both groups reflected:

"The narrative in 2016 stopped becoming about evictions and police brutality and removing homeless people and privatization of public space, and became about, can Rio get it together? And it’s very patronizing: ‘oh look at all the corruption crises and their economy, and are their stadiums finished?’ […] And then it becomes this condescending ‘can Brazil do it or can Brazil not?’ from these European and American countries."

According to one Popular Committee activist, when international media focused their attention before the Games on questions about local preparation, then:

"Just because the sport went off without a hitch, it paves the way for a post-Games narrative of: ‘Oh we were so hard on Rio. We shouldn’t have been so hard on Rio. It was a brilliant Olympics.’"

In other words, media panic about a host city's readiness creates a bizarrely low bar for the Games' success. In light of the perceived failure of many mainstream media journalists to accurately portray the Olympic City, the dossiers and RioOnWatch modeled an alternative approach to seeing beyond official narratives and documenting the realities of the Olympic project.

Photo by Catalytic Communities

(Banner pictured above: "Vila Autódromo - We're not threatened by the Olympics but rather by real estate speculation.")

5. An Alternative approach to documenting the Olympic City

The methodologies used to produce the dossiers and RioOnWatch articles implicitly modeled an approach to seeing beyond official narratives. Two key aspects of both platforms’ approaches were 1) an extended process of research and documentation over time, in contrast to the perceived pressure on mainstream journalists to report quickly on 'new' stories, and 2) valuing knowledge derived from communities’ lived experiences, in contrast to the perceived default of mainstream journalists to prioritize official sources.

Extended research and documentation

At eviction sites, mainstream media would "shoot for like five minutes and then before you know it, they’re gone." – CatComm staff member

One theme that emerged repeatedly in my interviews was the perception that mainstream media journalists were always in a rush to get their stories. Indeed, many foreign journalists — the so-called "parachute journalists" — were only in Rio for a short period of time. One Popular Committee activist said that a majority of international journalists were:

"Not prepared to ask difficult questions about the discourses and the 'truths' that are put out by [Rio’s city government]. For instance, there's the famous thing about increasing the [percentage of Rio residents using public transport] from 18 to 62% or whatever. But no one ever questions it. Where do you get those numbers? Where's the proof? [...] So the international media, they're typically trying to file a story that day. And they just want to get the basic data and just go along. Not all of them obviously […] It's kind of a structurally imposed condition on the international media that they're not conditioned or not poised to ask really incisive questions about such big projects."

In contrast, each dossier reflected months of research and writing, with the final version in 2015 encompassing years of work. As primarily a document of research, rather than journalism, the dossiers were not necessarily a model that its producers thought mainstream journalists should have to emulate. Rather, they reflected the kind of ground-up information — driven by skepticism and informed by the broader city context — that the dossiers’ producers believed journalists needed in order to see the Olympic City more accurately.

The process of compiling and writing the dossiers was methodical. An individual or working group would draft a chapter and share it with the wider group for additional contributions or proposed revisions. For each dossier, “there was a team,” one of the coordinators explained, “that did the consolidation, the joining of the parts,” such that the final project was the product of “various hands,”* a blend of the participating academics' methodological rigor and the non-academic activists' grounded knowledge and vision. Almost all the Popular Committee members I interviewed echoed this language of the “collective work” or “collective project." While this level of cooperation undoubtedly slowed some processes down, it also broadened and diversified the sources of knowledge and reflection.

The list of contributors to the 2015 Dossier.

As for RioOnWatch, on some occasions volunteer reporters camped out for full days or even overnight at communities facing evictions. Other times, of course, the articles were written by favela residents themselves. Whereas major news outlets appeared to avoid issues or communities they had already reported on, in the constant search for 'new' news, one staff member explained how RioOnWatch deliberately functioned with the opposite approach:

"The mainstream media, they’re like, we did that story two years ago […] For us, we’re going to keep hammering the same nail in a different way from a different angle until we get it in where it needs to go […] So [for] Vila Autódromo, [we published] hundreds of articles over the years and that was critical for the community. And it created this documentation [...] of a process that the City was counting on being too confusing to journalists for them to cover it. So by writing about it every turn and twist we were able to document it in a way that people could keep track and follow along."

In the case of Vila Autódromo next to the Olympic Park, the City changed its plans several times over the course of many years, altering both the justification for the community's removal and the specifications for which homes had to be demolished. The staff member quoted above suggested reporting norms did not allow mainstream journalists to dedicate the consistent attention needed to track how the City was changing its information. In contrast, as a platform that was little concerned with the viewership or clicks for any individual article, RioOnWatch was able to publish update articles on each small event or development that occurred in the community. Even if some of those individual articles contained minimal new information, as a series of articles they traced a complicated process over time.

An early-morning vigil on February 24, 2016 for Vila Autódromo's Neighborhood Association building, which was due to be demolished at 7am that day. Representatives of both the Popular Committee and CatComm were on hand to support residents and document the occasion, having slept over in one of the remaining family's homes. Photo by Catalytic Communities (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Valuing knowledge from communities and lived experience

One CatComm staff member observed that many mainstream journalists had easier access to government and police sources than to favela residents, but noted:

“When [they] do have something from a resident, generally, it’s an emotional testimony […] The information, analysis, is going to come from the sociologist, from the police, from the City. We invert that. We give the role of thinking to the resident and the leader.” It’s about “who has voice. It's not about speaking about the emotional impacts [...] but from the point of view of information, who do you let analyze the facts?”*

Accordingly, regardless of whether a given article was a report on a one-off event, a profile of a community project or leader, or in-depth research into a government policy or social phenomenon, the theme that linked all RioOnWatch materials together was the prioritizing of favela resident quotes and initiatives. For example, the site published three letters by former Vila Autódromo resident Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, who denounced how city officials had threatened and intimidated her throughout the eviction negotiation process. Each letter was space for Heloisa Helena to tell her story directly, unfiltered by a journalist and uncontested by a government official. The letters stood as a stark rebuttal to the mayor’s public statements that anyone who wanted to remain in Vila Autódromo could stay.

Even other RioOnWatch articles written by non-favela-resident reporters rarely included city government perspectives or opinions that would reflect the ‘other side,’ as would be standard practice in traditional mainstream media. The point of RioOnWatch articles was always to highlight the perspectives that were relatively less visible in public debates about the city.

The dossiers, although packed with data collected from a range of sources including government records and media reports, also had research “missions” as a core part of their methods. Missions, like the one documented in the video below, involved visiting communities facing eviction threats and collecting residents’ testimonies about what evictions had taken place so far, what they had been told by the government, how much they had been offered for their homes, and their interactions with city officials. These kind of missions contributed to the dossier section on housing, in which the Popular Committee broke down the numbers of families removed for different reasons, explicitly disputing the City’s claims that only one neighborhood was removed because of the Olympics. Quantitative data was heavy in the dossiers, but testimonial quotes played an important role too. The communities and groups most affected by the Olympics preparations were considered essential sources for studying and questioning the impacts of the Games.

Several interviewees credited each group’s close connections to threatened communities and broad networks for the fact that the dossiers and RioOnWatch were voicing criticisms about the Olympics long before the Brazil-wide protests in June 2013 brought questions about the sports mega-events’ priorities into the mainstream.

In light of their explicit criticisms of mainstream media’s complicity in sustaining official Olympics narratives, the dossiers and RioOnWatch both implicitly modeled their authors’ beliefs on how to better document and understand the Olympic City. Built into their methodological approaches were fixes for the flaws they believed lead many mainstream media journalists to fall for the narratives “for the English to see.”

Photo by Jogos da Exclusão

6. Five Strategies for engaging the mainstream media

Despite the Popular Committee and CatComm’s concerns about traditional outlets' coverage of the Olympic City, it was clear to both groups that the mainstream media was still a crucial battleground for challenging the official and celebratory narratives. As important as it was to build autonomous spaces where they could employ the practices described in the previous section, mainstream media remained the key to reaching bigger audiences.

Furthermore, both groups observed that Rio's mayor at the time, Eduardo Paes, aspired to higher political offices and was striving to cultivate an image as a transformative leader, both nationally and abroad. The Olympics themselves are always inherently about promoting a certain positive image of the host city. As such, there was a strong sense that negative international media coverage would matter to the mayor and the IOC, and could therefore be used as leverage. Almost everyone I interviewed identified international journalists as a key target audience for RioOnWatch and the dossiers.

Some interviewees suggested international media coverage also played the role of influencing Brazilian media coverage. One Popular Committee activist reflected on the period around 2013 when international media began to voice criticisms of the Games' preparations:

"These materials began to come out in the international press: The Guardian, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, El País. And so, it became unsustainable for the local media not to talk about it. And they began to discuss it too. Often in a distorted form, but at least they began to talk about it. This was particularly clear in relation to evictions."*

The following list of strategies to engage mainstream media is by no means exhaustive, but instead reflects those strategies that emerged from my interviews and document analysis.

Strategy #1: Build media contacts, early

As foreign correspondents and freelance journalists moved to Rio de Janeiro in the years before the Games, both groups worked to build and maintain media contacts. CatComm made sure to let newly arrived journalists know they could reach out to the team for support on reporting on favelas.

"I’d reach out and we’d meet up for coffee. Basically I’d just let them pick my brain about whatever interested them. But I’d also give them perspectives that I thought were important, in terms of what is a favela and why their work is so important in Rio at the moment." — CatComm Executive Director

Through these informal interactions and through press requests from journalists, CatComm developed a mailing list of reporters' emails that it would blast with important story recommendations and resources for reporting on favelas.

The Popular Committee developed its own journalist mailing list, built up in a similar fashion over the years from a combination of contacts who had reached out to the group and contacts that members of the collective already had. This list received press releases about each dossier as it was launched. The Popular Committee’s communications team was fully aware that journalists might not have time to read the long dossiers in full, so they highlighted updated statistics and summarized key issues in the press releases.

It's crucial to emphasize that both groups had built up extensive media contacts long before 2016. They worked over the course of years to support critical coverage in mainstream media and, as described earlier in this page, to solidify their positions as recognized "references" on rights violations and favelas, respectively, in the context of the Olympics.

Strategy #2: Create resources for journalists

Just before the World Cup, CatComm used its mailing list to disseminate a contact list and map of favela community leaders who wanted to tell their stories to international press. It was a way of encouraging mainstream media to invert the trend of overlooking favela perspectives and to produce coverage that challenged stereotypes. Journalist feedback suggested the resources were useful but would have been more helpful several months prior to the start of the sports event. Accordingly, for the Olympics, CatComm compiled a full page on RioOnWatch dedicated to “Olympics Resources for Journalists,” and shared these materials with journalist contacts several months ahead of the Games.

One of the NGOs closely involved with the Popular Committee, Justiça Global, knew that Olympics organizers were blasting accredited journalists with information through mailing lists, press conferences, and even carefully coordinated tours of the city. Assuming many reporters coming for the event would be pressed for time and would seek out this kind of ready-made reporting, Justiça Global produced a Guide for Reporting on Rio for journalists. Published in three languages, the guide offered concise snapshots of information from the dossiers and from across the network of actors critiquing the Olympics.

Strategy #3. Create and capitalize on moments of high media interest

One Popular Committee activist told me the group received spikes in press coverage with each protest and event it organized, so the collective strategized around this notion that it could influence, to an extent, the timeline of media interest. In addition to organizing the main protests immediately before and during the World Cup and Olympics, the Popular Committee received considerable media coverage for the People's Cup (in 2013 and 2014) and for each of its dossier launch events. It also organized countless public debates on themes ranging from the militarization of the city to the right to housing, and co-organized protests around the city in partnership with communities threatened by Olympics developments and other civil society groups. (And as most of the links in this paragraph demonstrate, many Popular Committee events were documented on RioOnWatch.)

The 2013 People's Cup Against Removals, organized by the Popular Committee. Photos by Catalytic Communities.

At the same time, the activists used certain milestones they knew would be high media visibility occasions. One activist recalled that in 2012 when the Olympic flag arrived in Rio, the Popular Committee knew reporters would be at the airport to attend a city government press conference. Accordingly, activists went to the airport dressed as Olympic swimmers and delivered a press release to those journalists. The press release included critical questions the reporters could ask at the press conference, an example of the Popular Committee encouraging mainstream media actors to use dossier data to see beyond the official narratives. In this case, the protesters attracted coverage from the major Brazilian publication Globo, among others.

Similarly, CatComm timed Olympics-focused articles to dates when the team knew mainstream media interest would be high, such as the “One Year To Go” and “Three Months To Go” dates. In 2012 when Eduardo Paes delivered the Olympic flag from London to Rio, CatComm Director Theresa Williamson and Providência photographer Maurício Hora published an op-ed in The New York Times titled, "In the Name of the Future, Rio is Destroying Its Past." They used the occasion to pivot attention not just from London toward Rio, but toward critical questions about the communities and heritage at stake in Rio's rush to develop and construct in the name of the Olympics.

"The London Olympics concluded Sunday, but the battle over the next games has just begun in Rio, where protests against illegal evictions of some of the city’s poorest residents are spreading. Indeed, the Rio Olympics are poised to increase inequality in a city already famous for it." — Theresa Williamson and Maurício Hora, The New York Times

CatComm also held an “Alternative Press Conference” in October 2015, timed closely with the city government’s major press conference for international journalists. At this alternative event, the CatComm team and Olympics researcher Jules Boykoff recommended hard-hitting questions for journalists to ask the mayor and Olympics organizers at the official press conference; former Vila Autódromo resident Heloisa Helena Costa Berto also shared her eviction story. Later, in the week before the Games began, the NGO organized an “Alternative Olympics Tour," calculating that the days immediately preceding the Opening Ceremony would offer the maximum number of available journalists before their attention was grabbed by the sports. RioOnWatch editors also used this week as a deadline to squeeze in a number of articles that were heavily critical of the Olympics, as well as a series of articles that called on journalists to #StopFavelaStigma.

Community activists and media producers from the City of God teamed up with CatComm to lead an international group of journalists on a tour of the favela in August 2016. Photo by Catalytic Communities (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The Popular Committee shared the assumption that the period immediately before the Games would be the most strategic moment of high media visibility before sports began to dominate everything. One activist recalled:

“We didn’t plan such a big schedule of protests [during the Games] because we knew, based on the experience of the World Cup when there was very violent repression [...] the coverage, even of the international media, was all focused on the Games.”*

Learning from the World Cup, then, the Popular Committee did plan a protest on the day of the Olympics Opening Ceremony (see the video below), but also ran a week of protest events prior to the start date. Similarly, the Popular Committee ran a Facebook campaign for the 100 days prior to the Opening Ceremony in which they posted about one human rights violation per day. One activist stated simply:

“We posted a lot in the pre-Olympic period. We knew it was when we would have more visibility.”*

Thus, perceptions of changing opportunities at different moments led both groups to concentrate their efforts to attract media visibility in the period at the very end of the build-up phase, rather than during the main event itself.

Strategy #4. Provide interviews and support for the press

Members of both groups did interviews with the press and regularly accompanied journalists to visit communities threatened by Olympics preparations. In CatComm's case, given its mission to challenge negative preconceptions about favelas, team members also accompanied journalists on visits to community initiatives involving culture, environmental sustainability, homegrown solutions to issues of sanitation or water, and local organizing.

Some mainstream media coverage had tangible impacts on "the concrete struggle," as one Popular Committee activist described it. There were cases when the mere presence of camera teams delayed demolitions or gave residents an extra dose of confidence to demand full compensation for their homes.

Several interviewees said media interest in their work built in intensity throughout 2016 to the start of the games on August 5. June and July of 2016, in particular, saw several Popular Committee and CatComm participants managing exhausting numbers of press requests.

Some joked that they did so many interviews on a weekly basis that they lost track of who they were talking to and for what publication they were being interviewed.

The unprecedented demand for interviews and support as the Olympics approached reflected the influx of what both groups referred to as "parachute journalists." Unlike the correspondents and freelancers who had moved to Rio some years prior in anticipation of the Games, parachute journalists spent only short chunks of time in the city, or arrived in June or July to prepare for Olympics and Paralympics coverage in August and September. In my interviews, several people suggested the interest in critical reporting was there, but many of these parachute journalists came with set scripts they wanted to report and did not have the time to go beyond those scripts. Still, they were instrumental in raising the quantity of voices debating the impacts of the Olympics on the city, and some produced materials that CatComm and the Popular Committee appreciated immensely.

The videos produced by Johnny Harris for Vox, for example, epitomized the kind of reporting CatComm aimed to support: one analyzed the exclusive Olympic City project that had been built on the displacement of poor residents, and another invited viewers to rethink the common stereotypes of the city's favelas.

Activists also used interviews and other exchanges with journalists as opportunities to voice their concerns about media complicity. Referring to the trend for international outlets to question whether the Rio Olympics would be ready in time, one CatComm staff member explained:

"One thing I commonly told journalists during those years was that not only was this focus on whether Rio could 'pull it off' patronizing and distracting, but it actually gave leverage to the city to instate a state of exception and pound on citizens' rights because they could argue it was necessary 'to pull off the Games' given the international pressure. So the journalists were actually compounding the human rights abuses by reporting like that."

Strategy #5: Pile on the social media

Both groups were highly active on Facebook and Twitter, posting multiple times per day to share their own material, content produced by others in their critical network, relevant news from mainstream media, and Facebook pages for upcoming events.

On Twitter, the CatComm team developed two new Twitter accounts in the years approaching the Olympics. @RioONWire, launched in April 2015, was targeted specifically at international journalists, aiming to support more diverse and stigma-countering stories about favelas. CatComm's website explained:

"Different from our regular @RioOnWatch Twitter feed (for general news, in English and Portuguese, including retweets and conversations), our @RioONWire Twitter feed behaves like a traditional Wire service (think Bloomberg, Reuters or CNN scrolling updates along the bottom of your screen or in Times Square) but focused on favelas and real-time news, in English and with some extra punch: after every NEWS, BREAKING or EVENT item, you’ll find tweets offering BACKGROUND, CONTEXT, CONTACT information, and more, to help you understand and contextualize that original news item."

Like RioOnWatch, @RioONWire's primary objective was to change the narrative about favelas in order to pave the way for more productive public policies. Its focus on stories about favelas and by favela residents ultimately meant that it often directed followers to critical analyses of abandoned Olympic legacy projects and the elite city being constructed in the name of the Olympics.

Created in October 2014, @RioOnWatchLIVE was another handle that CatComm's interns and collaborators used to report directly from events. It was developed after interns tweeted live from the protest in Rio on the final day of the World Cup, documenting how several hundred police blockaded protesters in one plaza and used stun grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. The tweets were shared widely by journalists, researchers and activists, alerting the team to the demand for this kind of live social media reporting. Most of @RioOnWatchLIVE's tweets were retweeted by @RioOnWatch, which had a bigger audience built up over the years. The CatComm team typically used the @RioOnWatchLIVE account to report on demolitions, panel discussions organized by groups like the Popular Committee, and protests, including the Protest Against the Genocide of Black Youth held in July 2016 and pictured below.

The Popular Committee's "100 Days Without Rights" (#CemDiasSemDireitos) campaign provided the group with an additional media hook in the immediate build-up to the Olympics, and RioOnWatch was among the outlets that covered the social media campaign. The campaign also gave the group an opportunity to distill the extensive content of the dossiers into short but informative posts, highlighting the wide range of rights violations that had occurred in the Olympic City.

100 Days Without Rights. 8: Absence of an Environmental Impact Study for the Olympic Park. 5: Military occupation of favelas during the Olympics. 96: The Olympic Law criminalizes protests.*
Photo by Catalytic Communities

7. Conclusion: so what?

By the time of the Olympics, it was clear that the Games' organizers had lost control of the media narratives about the Olympic City. Instead of echoing their lofty rhetoric about urban and social transformations, global news headlines focused on rushed and delayed construction projects, the potential health risks of Zika and the city's polluted waterways, the rapidly widening cracks in the state's fragile security programs, the "state of calamity" financial crisis, and the ongoing political crisis, in which a largely corrupt congress impeached President Dilma Rousseff in the midst of unprecedented investigations into government and business networks of kickbacks and bribes. Not exactly the shining moment on the global stage that Mayor Eduardo Paes or the IOC had hoped for.

It's important to note that these dominant headlines were also not exactly the critical narratives pushed by groups like the Popular Committee and CatComm, although there was some overlap. Arguments about the inherently extractive Olympic model and the exclusive character of Rio's Olympics developments received what we could perhaps consider second tier global media visibility — they got substantial coverage, for sure, but could not compete with the most dominant narratives. Reporting norms meant greater attention was paid to the total waste of time that was the Ryan Lochte fiasco than to Vila Autódromo's years-long struggle against evictions. And of course, for the estimated billions of people who tuned into the Olympics on TV, the sports coverage and athletes' stories still dominated the day. NBC's critical reporting, for example, showed up in online news articles and occasionally on TV before the Games began, but unsurprisingly did not feature in its actual Games coverage.

However, thanks in part to the work of the Popular Committee, CatComm, and other actors in their network, the conversation about the systemic problems of the Olympic model and of neoliberal urban development regimes advanced more during the build-up to the Rio Olympics than in the context of any past sports mega-event. In 2013 Brazil became the first country to have massive protests against government spending priorities tied to its upcoming sports mega-events. Since then, cities have abandoned bids to host at an unprecedented rate. Furthermore, following investigations into doping scandals and corruption in the bidding process, the IOC and the "Olympic Movement" is facing a sustained public image crisis. As the Rio Games wrapped up, several high circulation publications published pieces asking "was it worth it?" Global mainstream coverage of the legacy of the Games (which peaked at the six-months-after and one-year-after milestones) has been almost consistently critical.

Observer/Guardian headline from August 21, 2016. Full article: bit.ly/2Fh2EyD
Washington Post headline from December 9, 2016. Full article: wapo.st/2CZ6wSv
ESPN headline from August 10, 2018. Full article: es.pn/2RkJ9eE

Momentum for change is building. The near-global reach of social media means activists around the world can take documenting the real impacts of mega-events into their own hands. It also means they can connect with each other more easily than ever before, exchanging experiences, strategies, content, and support. While Rio's official 'Olympics legacy' is in shambles, perhaps the real legacy will come from the work of groups like the Popular Committee and CatComm, which have left models for resistance that can, and should, be built upon by activists at future mega-event host cities.

A luta continua. The struggle continues.

Photo by Mídia Ninja

Additional information

I conducted this research as an MPhil student in sociology at the University of Cambridge with funding from the Gates Cambridge Trust. For a more theoretical and traditional write-up (with more information on my research methods), see my article, "The Media Event Build-Up Phase: A Site of Contestation and Counternarratives." Thank you to all the representatives of CatComm and the Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics who offered their time and knowledge in interviews.

If you have questions, feedback, or just want to know more about global resistance to sports mega-events, you can reach me — Cerianne Robertson — at ceriannr@usc.edu.

All photographs are licensed under Creative Commons NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

*Any quote with an asterisk is my translation from Portuguese. Nine of my fifteen interviews were conducted in Portuguese, with the other six in English.

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