Sao Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Bia Barbosa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Bia Barbosa is strengthening the public will and institutional mechanisms needed to open the Brazilian media to greater public participation.
The New Idea
Bia sees that a more open and responsive Brazilian media can be achieved by carving out a feedback mechanism and role for citizens. Through her organization, Intervozes, she raises awareness among the Brazilian public of the right to information, cultivates an understanding of some of the problems inherent in the current system, and enables citizens and citizen-led organizations to constructively engage in media reform. Bia presses court cases when certain groups are misrepresented, even harmed, by the media, and ensures greater media access for members of Brazil’s poorest groups. To cultivate saavy media consumers, she is introducing educational modules that teach critical reading as a vital skill in a democracy.
Public access to the Brazilian media is low despite legal protections laid out in the 1988 Brazilian constitution. Ownership of the media is concentrated in the hands of a few people, with approximately 85 percent of Brazilian communications controlled by nine families. Additionally, Brazilian TV is dominated by one network, Globo, which attracts more than 65 percent of the total Brazilian audience. The Brazilian government spends US$250 million on television advertising, making it the country’s largest advertiser; however, 65 percent of the expenditure is destined for the TV Globo network. Conflicts of interest abound, including, until recently, a Minister of Communications also serving as a senior executive at TV Globo. In many other countries, the Internet is emerging as an effective alternate channel of communication. Yet in Brazil, Internet access is difficult and expensive. The Internet is not likely to be an effective way to introduce a plurality of voices in the short term. In this environment, the majority of Brazilians feel that they have no right to express themselves in the media. Most passively receive news and entertainment. Congress has not passed legislation that would provide a regulatory framework to ensure greater access, which means that unfair coverage, particularly of minorities, persists. Immensely popular TV soap operas commonly portray young people from the favelas as drug-crazed, violent threats to society and no mechanism for redress is available.Where independent media emerges, it is typically quelled. New and alternative communication channels are often shut down by the military or by local police just after launching. Even though the stations are transmitting legally, military personnel may damage the equipment and shut down the radio stations indefinitely. This is most common among popular “community radio” stations. The recent discussion about Digital TV represents the problem well. TV Globo and the Minister of Communication agreed that upgrading Brazilian TV to a digital network would hinder production of Brazilian programs and thus eliminate local jobs. Rather than opening a public discussion, the decision was presented as a mere technical matter to be decided by engineers. Intervozes played a critical role in raising awareness that digital technology could increase significantly the number of TV stations available to most Brazilians.
Through Intervozes, Bia is creating public awareness of the constitutional right to media access. Her goal is to ensure that this right is institutionalized through participation of disenfranchised groups, the creation of additional communication channels, changes in the educational system, and a robust regulatory framework at the city, state, and national levels. She sees this as a 10 year challenge that can only be accomplished through small, steady improvements. Intervozes cultivates public awareness by drawing attention to the problems inherent in the existing media industry and leveraging this attention to push for real change. For example, Bia sued a major São Paulo TV station for its distorted portrayal of youth and homosexuals. The lawsuit forced the TV station to include 30 hours of programming portraying a more diverse view of these groups through 400 videos created by 60 civil society groups from around the country. While Bia and Intervozes will continue to increase awareness, they recognize that the creation of concrete mechanisms for participation is necessary to achieve enduring change. Intervozes and its 60 partners have created a new legal and institutional framework, the General System of Communication, as a guide to institutionalize their rights. Intervozes uses seminars, speeches, workshops and lobbying activities to build public consensus and motivate participation in the effort for policy reform. Since 2004, each of the 60 partner groups participated in a national dialogue including practical workshops on media production technique and information on the Brazilian constitutional right to public access of communication. As a result, many member groups initiated local activities of their own that support Bia’s ongoing efforts. One such project is a major effort to protect community radio stations from illegal persecution from authorities and to create new programming with broader appeal, especially in the favelas. Finally, the General System of Communication proposes a regulatory framework and enabling legislation for public access to communication channels. While the ultimate objective is to change national legislation, Bia and Intervozes have already begun changing laws in São Paulo and the northeast.Within 5 years, Bia envisions regional groups proactively participating in a more open media, supported by a public school curriculum and new programs to institutionalize public access to media.
Bia was born in the interior of the state of São Paulo, in the city of São José dos Campos. She has been involved with journalism, radio, and student organizations since she was 10 years old. Through her school participation, she discovered her love for journalism. After graduating from high school, Bia entered the School of Journalism at the University of São Paulo and became involved in the leadership of the National Board of Social Communication Students. As an intern with VEJA, the most popular magazine in Brazil, she refined her technique and learned how big media companies operate.In 2001, Bia decided to study and live in France, where her parents had moved as a result of her father’s work as a UNESCO researcher. Through an internship with the UNESCO Department of Communication and with Radio France, she saw a communications system that functioned under a set of regulations designed to stimulate plurality, support public media, and promote national, regional, and community participation. She saw that France and the UK had strong media, and realized that an effective regulatory framework could provide the necessary checks and balances for public access to information. Upon her return to Brazil, Bia worked with Carta Maior, an Internet news agency, and focused on human rights. She revived conversations with old journalism friends from her student years and with them founded Intervozes to reach beyond the work of the current movement in the democratization in communications.