Citizen journalists from the Mídia Ninja collective were in the heart of the action when the biggest protests in Brazil’s history kicked off in June 2013. Dodging tear gas, they used mobile phones and social media to document unfolding events. Their extensive, up-close reporting changed perceptions of the protests, which were triggered initially by opposition to the high cost of the World Cup.
When police tried to frame a protester for throwing a molotov cocktail, big news outlets such as Globo faithfully repeated the official line. Ninja sent out a call for footage of the incident and eventually proved it wasn’t thrown by a protester, but by a plain-clothes policeman. Rafael Vilela of Mídia Ninja São Paulo explains that coverage of the protests really exposed the failings of Brazil’s corporate media.
“I think there are some excellent people in the mainstream media,” says Rafael. “But they are not the problem; it’s the structure they work in. Ninja is a response to the crisis of industrial journalism. It can’t cope with an age where information is totally free and can’t be controlled like it was before. It’s a great moment for the free media movement to grow and show there are alternative views of the world.”
Mídia Ninja, which stands for ‘independent narratives, journalism and action’ in Portuguese, was established in 2011 out of frustration with news that often failed to challenge the official story. The collective use their network of citizen journalists to report on social issues and sections of the population that are usually ignored by the mainstream media. Their content comes in a variety of formats, including photography, live streaming, articles and mini-docs, which they distribute via social media. All of their content is available for free and contributors are unpaid. “We take money out of the equation and that makes our journalism more honest,” says Rafael.
Media in Brazil is big business, with just seven families owning most of the country’s newspapers, radio stations and TV channels, which they use as a platform to attack the progressive social policies of the country’s left-of-centre government. This fierce polarisation between conservative media and the state creates a desperate need for less partisan voices to represent the perspectives of ordinary Brazilians. Ninja’s intention was never to compete with the mainstream, but fill this space by empowering people to build a new DIY form of popular communication.
“We are not building a mass media, but what we call a media of the masses,” Rafael explains. “It’s not about one source talking to millions, it’s about ten thousand talking to another ten thousand, and so on. It’s a process of participation, where people can think about alternative perspectives not included in the mainstream media. Building this process with everyone who wants to be a part of it is really important. Collaboration is the basis of everything we do. The objective is not to grow infinitely, but to lose control.”
Their approach demonstrated its value during the protests as people hungry for news flocked to Ninja. While traditional media outlets struggled to cover demonstrations erupting in cities throughout the country, Ninja’s network of thousands of contributors sprang into action and relayed information via social media. Rafael was delighted when, inspired by their approach, people all over Brazil began calling themselves Ninjas and sharing eyewitness reports. They now exist as a vibrant constellation of alternative groups who share information with one another.
Mídia Ninja grew out of Fora do Eixo (Out of the Axis), an underground arts and culture collective that supports independent musicians and artists in hundreds of Brazilian cities. Ninja used the Fora do Eixo structure of shared houses around the country to build its vast network of contributors. Since 2011, Rafael and others have been leading workshops all over Brazil on live streaming and other new technologies. By giving marginalised indigenous groups the tools to tell their own stories, Ninja hope to build a more participatory democracy that allows different voices to engage in debate.
“We understand journalism as a way to do activism,” says Rafael. “Everything grew out of activists living in a collective house doing lots of crazy things with good journalists from São Paulo. When we met, things started to happen. It’s about working together, sharing, and understanding different perspectives. We have to hack all the best tools from traditional and social media to take the best parts and create our own system. We are changing ourselves to build an alternative society and that is the most radical part.”
2014 is set go down in history as the year of the Ninja. The citizen journalist collective just launched their own online platform, bringing all their content together in one place for the first time, and have big plans for the World Cup, when the eyes of the world’s media will be fixed on Brazil.
In partnership with social movements and indigenous groups, they will occupy public squares across Brazil for the duration of the tournament to establish alternative republics. Broadcasting in English, Spanish and Portuguese from these fun, freethinking spaces, they will legalise weed, discuss solutions to the country’s many problems and attempt to give a more honest and complete picture of today’s Brazil. Make sure you tune in.
You can catch Mídia Ninja’s alternative coverage of Brazil during the World Cup at the Ninja portal. Much of their content, including the majority of their videos, are available in English.
This article appeared earlier in the year in Huck 44 – The Tommy Guerrero issue.