Mainstream Newspaper Coverage: A Barometer of Government Tolerance for Anti-Regime Expression in Authoritarian Brazil

By Elizabeth A. Stein

A paper by Elizabeth A. Stein, spring 2007 fellow, evaluates the theory that in authoritarian regimes, leaders of civil society follow the mainstream press not so much for the specific information it provides, but rather as a barometer for the government’s tolerance for opposition activities or to gauge the government’s ability to quash such activities. By observing trends in coverage and the government’s treatment of journalists and their publications, activists can gauge when it might be safer to plan mass actions, which in turn can encourage mass participation ⎯ strengthening their cause. The analysis in this paper relies on a careful coding structure of A Folha de São Paulo, one of the main Brazilian newspapers, during the period from 1974 (the start of political détente) to 1982 (the first direct gubernatorial elections after the 1964 military coup). The content analysis contains information on coverage of subjects generally considered taboo under authoritarian regimes, such as criticism of the economic model, crimes and corruption by government officials, satire, exposés on the leader’s family or information critical of the leader himself, coverage of the opposition and its electoral efforts and criticism of government policies. The data also contain information on reports of arrests and injuries to the media and activists, anti-media acts by the government, such as censorship and closures of publications, and coverage of the release of prisoners and the return of exiles. Finally, the data include information on strikes, protests and other antiregime activities reported both in the national and foreign press. The paper demonstrates that key opposition actions followed trends in coverage. This relationship was mediated by the government’s actions against the media and attacks on journalists and editors. Elites planned more events during periods soon after reporters successfully reported on taboo subjects without suffering repercussions from the government.

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