Why was the British media silent for so long about Lula’s predicament under Operation Car Wash?
During the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s international reputation was positive, based on combatting hunger and lifting people out of poverty. Brazil was seen as a culturally rich, joyful ‘country of tomorrow’. Under Lula its foreign policy aimed to make the world a more egalitarian and peaceful place and he left office with record levels of popularity at home and abroad.
However, during Dilma Rousseff’s mandate, news from Brazil began to be focused almost entirely on governmental corruption. President Rousseff was impeached in a soft coup for alleged ‘creative accounting’, as the anti-graft Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) that put former President Lula in jail dominated coverage of the country.
Overnight, a low-level judge, Sérgio Moro, from a provincial capital in the south of Brazil, became a world celebrity. He was praised and awarded prizes for daring to go against the ‘mighty and powerful’. He made the covers of international magazines, whilst Lula languished in prison.
After almost five years of smears, Lula is back in the news. So, what happened to the celebrated Car Wash that put him in jail? The British press decided to focus solely on the ‘downfall’ of Brazil’s charismatic former leader, portrayed as the leftist mastermind behind the largest corruption scandal in Brazil.
But Lula is back in the news. Back because his legal processes were quashed by the Supreme Court and because he is still the most likely presidential candidate to take on Bolsonaro and steer Brazil out of the mire.
So why did Lula go from hero to pariah to riding high again? Don’t look towards the British media for an explanation. There is hardly ever any context of what goes on in countries in the global south. Politics shapes things in the UK, the US, sometimes in Europe, but if you follow the media, elsewhere things just happen. The Amazon is destroyed, the indigenous peoples are massacred, criminal gangs run favelas, regardless of politics. Weird and horrific figures like Bolsonaro and the extreme-right just pop-up like mushrooms out of nowhere.
But politics does matter. It matters at home and it matters abroad. The context to what happened to Operation Car Wash, described by Supreme Justice Mendes as the ‘biggest legal scandal in history’, and why Lula is back is a lesson not just for Brazil, but for the world.
Right from the beginning of the corruption task force, the Brazilian media was co-opted. It received first-hand information they never checked or investigated. For years, people were named and shamed and tried by public opinion, even before they got to court.
However, though the media ignored it, academics and legal experts were warning about the illegal and unorthodox practices of the Operation which, this Tuesday, led the Supreme Court to declare former Judge Moro biased.
At the time, an atmosphere of terror against dissenting opinion ruled over Brazil: if you questioned Car Wash in anyway or defended the rights of its victims, you were against the fight against corruption. And who could possibly be for corruption?
This atmosphere pervaded all areas of Brazilian society and institutions, including the higher echelons of the judiciary. This meant Car Wash became increasingly blatant in its illegal practices, whilst most people sat by and said nothing.
Former President Lula, as hacked Telegram chats later revealed, was target number one. He was speedily and conveniently put away in prison – just before the 2018 presidential elections. With the removal of Lula, conservative parties hoped to place their candidate in power, but plans fell apart with the rise of far-right Bolsonaro.
The Brazilian mainstream media called it ‘a difficult choice’: Bolsonaro and his antics or the Workers’ Party candidate: the mild-mannered university professor, Fernando Haddad. Depicted as the opposite equivalent to Bolsonaro, Haddad had been a successful education minister and mayor of Brazil’s wealthiest and largest metropolis, São Paulo.
But Bolsonaro had Paulo Guedes lined up as finance minister: a Chicago Boy so extreme in his neo-liberal economic views as Bolsonaro was in other areas. He was the differential that made many opinion makers hold their noses and opt for Bolsonaro.
I am not going to describe the trials and tribulations of Brazil since then. They have been amply reported in the media. No week goes by without the Guardian publishing some horrific story about Brazil: be it the rampant spread of the new Coronavirus variant, the genocide of black people in favelas or the destruction of the Amazon. However, the British media has been silent on one thing: the downfall of Operation Car Wash.
In June 2019, the online platform The Intercept published a series of hacked conversations involving the chief prosecutor in Car Wash, Deltan Dallagnol. For those following the Operation critically, the revelations of its inner workings were no surprise. Telegram chats provided evidence of the collusion between judge and prosecutors, of their prejudice and partiality, especially against President Lula, who they pejoratively called ‘9’, because he had lost a finger in a work accident.
Conversations, obtained by hacker Walter Delgatti, now facing a 300-year prison sentence, showed how their tentacles spread to many Brazilian institutions and foreign organisations. Most importantly, it revealed that, for Car Wash operators, theory came before facts: ‘Lula was corrupt’ – they only needed to find evidence for it.
This February, Lula’s defence was granted access by the Supreme Court to the treasure trove of extra information obtained by Delgatti. The Operation’s modus operandi is now public. It discloses an avalanche of wrongdoings whose traces, luckily for us, were never erased by prosecutor Dallagnol.
As well as collusion between judge and prosecutors and complicity between the Operation and the media, there were attempts to corrupt and blackmail other courts and judges and witness statements forged by police officers. Whilst prosecutors and judges meddled in politics, collaborated with foreign intelligence agencies outside international frameworks and channels, among many other misdemeanours.
On 26 February, in its editorial, Brazil’s most important paper, Folha de São Paulo, admitted that Lula’s conviction relating to a seaside apartment should be annulled because Moro had been biased as a judge.
There was also the audio recording in which prosecutor Dallagnol describes how he tried to ensure that Judge Moro’s substitute (he was now serving as Bolsonaro’s minister of justice), would put to trial a second case against Lula before she was replaced by a permanent judge. It later emerged that in her decision about a country house, she had copied and pasted part of Moro’s decision about the seaside apartment. Unfortunately for her, she forgot to change ‘apartment` for ‘country home’.
This month, the Economist, in an article entitled the ‘sad, quiet death of Brazil’s anti-corruption task force’, admitted for the first time that Lula had been convicted because of ‘an apartment he never owned and never used’, a fact the British media had never reported. Generally, correspondents keep to the same sources, usually market analysts, even the Guardian. Why did the British media never try to interview at least one of the eminent academics warning about Operation Car Wash, like Pedro Serrano or Carol Proner? Its misconducts were never a secret.
Through these omissions, British media coverage, like Brazilian mainstream coverage, did not just simplify and sensationalise what was happening in Brazil, it provided editorial cover for these wrongdoings.
Whatever the reasons for keeping schtum, the silence seemed to replicate Car Wash’s own tactics: make huge noises when accusing people, then keep quiet when the accusation is proven false. So, now it seems that the annulment of Lula’s conviction, and the Supreme Court’s declaration of Moro’s bias came out of thin air.
It may be exciting to report on a celebrated ex-president going to jail for corruption. Who would have thought Car Wash would collapse so soon anyway? However, serious journalism should not be just about reporting on salacious information, but about telling the truth. It should give context and report on causes and consequences, even if they seem contradictory, too complex, or simply not exciting enough. Omitting relevant information goes against the duty the media has to its public. Good journalism should also mean rectifying stories when they are wrong, even if that goes against previous reports and the paper’s editorial line.
Insularity and lack of knowledge about the rest of world is one of the reasons the UK is struggling so badly with its history, overblown opinion of its current position in global affairs, its responsibilities and identity. It is absolutely essential journalists address foreign affairs with the same diligence as they would domestic news. Easy foreign stories only make it more difficult to see others as human beings with the same rights, duties and sensitivities as us. If coronavirus should have taught us anything, it is that the world is interconnected and what affects one part of humanity affects us all.
And what of corruption? Perhaps we should always be suspicious of superhero judges single-handedly waging corruption wars against individuals portrayed as the embodiment of evil. Life is not an American movie.
This article was originally published by Labour Outlook and has been edited for style.