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Journalism With Small Ears

10/10/2017 - 15h41

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PAULA CESARINO COSTA

The body on the ground in the shopping mall served as a tragic warning sign.

The passive acceptance of a police explanation, the rush to find those guilty of diverting public funds, the malpractice of elementary reporting techniques and the irresponsibility of public officials all contributed to the death of a private citizen and his right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

No matter how incisive and strenuous the self-criticism of the press has been regarding its coverage of the charge against and death of the principal of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Luiz Carlos Cancellier de Olivo, it obviously came too late and revealed the punitive bias of some of the primary social institutions in the country.

We need to reconstruct the sequence of events as they unfolded. In the case of Folha, the newspaper continues to make the following story available to readers: "Principal of UFSC is arrested in operation investigating the diverting of course funds". The article started with: "Federal Police (PF) arrested UFSC principal, Luiz Carlos Cancellier de Olivio and six other people connected to the institution on Thursday (14th of September). According to the PF, the group is suspected of diverting funds that were intended for Distance Education programs."

Only in the next paragraph, however, was it clarified that the principal himself, was actually really under suspicion for attempting to impede the investigation.

At the request of the officer from the Federal Police responsible for the investigation, a judge who had worked on the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation cases ordered Cancellier's arrest and banned him from the university campus. The operation was codenamed "Small Ears".

In testimony, the principal denied that he had tried to impede the investigation. He was held for one day. In an article, he wrote that he had felt perplexed and frightened, having undergone unprecedented humiliation and vexation.

Fewer than 20 days later, Cancellier shot himself at the top of an escalator in a shopping mall in Florianópolis. In his pocket there was a note in which he had written: "My death was decreed when I was banned from the university!!!"

On the electronic version today, the report from September has a "Corrections" flag and explanatory statement, published 23 days after the initial publication: "The report failed to inform that Luiz Carlos Cancellier de Olivo, UFSC principal, was being investigated for suspicion of interference in the investigation of diverting university resources, and not for the actual diverting of the funds themselves".

The admission of the error was direct, but too little and too late.

On the 7th of October, the newspaper published a report in which in stated that, in a letter to the Federal Police, the UFSC magistrate said that he had received "every kind of pressure imaginable for not having been subservient to the principal's office" of the institution. The principal's lawyer swung back saying that Cancellier had acted within the law and was trying to notify Capes (Education Ministry) about the episode.

Eduardo Scolese, the editor of the Cities section, explained that since there was no local correspondent in Florianópolis, the information was gathered for the first report over the phone and by email, without being disputed.

The question here isn't whether the principal was in fact presenting "small ears" or not to the solicitations from the police or even if he was trying to interfere with the investigation. What is of interest is a reflection upon the way in which the press has been dealing with police operations that shine spotlights on investigations that are still under way.

Reports from different vehicles were practically all the same, all based exclusively on the sparse and confusing information divulged by the Federal Police. I have been unable to identify any press agency that pointed out any inconsistencies or at least tried to scrutinize the charges that were levied.

This kind of behavior isn't limited exclusively to this case. It has been typical and routine in such investigations.

I questioned managing editor Vinicius Mota regarding the way that the newspaper has approached recent investigations: "Folha is always concerned with and strives, as its public documents show, to not be an involuntary vehicle for injustices against people or organizations. For this reason, it is committed to protocols like the necessity of hearing and highlighting the other side and explicitly correcting any mistakes that are found, as was done in this case", he responded.

The punitive environment born out of the spectacularization of police actions and judicial proceedings has repercussions and the press has a responsibility. Newspapers and journalists can't simply ride the wave nor accept the condemnation of those accused and under attack by investigators. They need to reflect upon and rethink the work they have been doing, re-evaluate their tools for control, and insist upon journalistic reporting that is accurate and unbiased.

There is a certain herd instinct, in which one does so because another did so. This must be guarded against and combatted.

Sometimes, it takes courage to publish. At other times, it takes even more bravery not to publish.

Translated by LLOYD HARDER

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