Folha and the General's Tweets

Folha's coverage of the Armed Forces still assumes that the body does not practice politics

The newspapers spent Carnival discussing old tweets from former Army commander General Eduardo Villas Bôas.

Last week it was revealed in a new book that Villas Bôas collaborated with army leadership to write the famous tweets released in April 2018, the day before the trial of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In an apparent attempt to put pressure on the Supreme Court vote, the messages spoke of "repudiation of impunity."

The matter came up again because, on Monday (15), Justice Edson Fachin reacted to the Villas Bôas news, saying it was "unacceptable pressure on the Judiciary." The general mocked the judge and pointed out, on social media, that people were complaining about the tweets "three years later."

In an op-ed written for the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper on Wednesday (17), political scientist Carlos Melo said that neither the general's tweet, nor his consultation with his peers were surprising. The delayed reaction of the "institutional agents" was unexpected, however.

Therefore, it is worth asking: how did the press behave?

A first look at Folha's news in the first week of April 2018,, shows a lot of reporting, but little context and almost no debate.

The tweets came out on Tuesday (3). The following day, Folha recognized the relevance of the army commander's tweets on the eve of a trial that would put Lula in jail six months before the election, but did so in a descriptive tone.

The headline read: "Army Commander says he repudiates impunity." The subtitle said further that on the eve of Lula's Supreme Court trial, General Villas Bôas saw the Army as being "attentive to institutional missions."

The main story described the tweets, the silence of then President Michel Temer, and the note of support from the Defense Ministry - then headed by Joaquim Silva e Luna, now set to lead Petrobras.

Also in that edition, there was a good explainer for the reader to understand how the habeas corpus judgment would take place, but no discussion on what the Army's institutional mission would be.

On Thursday (5), the front page featured the trial result: The petista had been denied habeus corpus 6 votes to 5, with the position of rapporteur Fachin prevailing.

In the filling, a lone Celso de Mello reacted harshly to Villas Bôas, while, in the opinion of specialists in military law, the general's statements did not constitute a violation.

In an editorial, Folha said that Villas Bôas’ comments were "deplorable," but that he appeared to yield to "pressure from subordinates" and that the Armed Forces had already shown that they understood that they were not political actors.

Although it remains very much alive in news coverage, the idea that the military understood that it should play a limited role in politics was, in fact, a lie as shown by the events at the end of the week in April.

On Friday (6), when then judge Sergio Moro ordered Lula to surrender to the Federal Police, the newspaper reported Villas Bôas' first public appearance after the episode at the Army Club. Reserve General Hamilton Mourão spoke to the press: "He [Villas Bôas] has the right to speak and he should. Because one thing has to be very clear, the Army is non-partisan, but it is not apolitical. The Army must enter into politics."

Some newspaper writers have even pointed out risks. "Speaking through ellipses is a well-known feature of the rhetoric of military men who engage in politics," wrote Elio Gaspari on April 8. "Either democracy corrects itself, or other threats will come, from uniformed people or candidates for messiahs," said Clóvis Rossi three days earlier.

Overall, however, that month's news coverage suggests that Folha normalized the tweets, failing to try to understand and explain to its readers what that meant.

If a little more ink had been spent in 2018 contextualizing the tweets then, perhaps, today we would be dedicating less ink to types like deputy Daniel Silveira (PSL-RJ), arrested on Tuesday (16) after he attacked the Supreme Court and challenged the ministers to arrest Villas Bôas in a video.

The fact is that, in more than two years of the Bolsonaro government, much of the journalistic coverage still starts from the assumption that the political contamination of the Army is reduced to subordinates, that the "ideological" and "military" wings of the government do not mix and that generals do not bow to politics.

I've touched on the subject before. Three years after the episode, the lack of understanding about the Armed Forces and the lack of dialogue with their representatives (who are also not used to dialogue) have always put the press one step behind the dynamics of a group that needs to be understood, because, in the end, it governs the country.

Published in the midst of Folha's centenary celebrations, this column does not wish to disturb the party, but to magnify it in the name of two of the most important things in professional journalism: readership and democracy. Again, long live Folha!

Flavia Lima
A reporter specializing in economics, she has a degree in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon