On October 28, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. Bolsonaro’s flamboyant fascism has compelled most global media outlets to denounce him. After all, he uses brutal language toward the country’s vulnerable populations, promises to license the murder of criminals and people who are poor, and wants to resuscitate the country’s previous military dictatorship. Uniquely, immediately after Bolsonaro won the election, a CBC article by Chris Arsenault was not concerned with denouncing him. Instead, Arsenault explicitly accounted the opportunities that Bolsonaro’s presidency will afford Canadian businesses.
Three of CBC’s tweets that night pushed Arsenault’s article.
The first: “Brazil’s new president elect, Jair Bolsonaro, is a right-winger who leans towards more open markets. This could mean fresh opportunities for Canadian companies looking to invest in the resource-rich country.”
The second: “Critics have lambasted the former paratrooper for his homophobic, racist and misogynist statements, but his government could open new investment opportunities.”
The third: “Updated: Brazil’s new president elect, Jair Bolsonaro, is set to put his country on a new course. The right winger promised big changes, including curtailing crime and getting tough on leftists. So where does that leave Canadian investments in Brazil?”
All three tweets drew outrage.
On Twitter, Arsenault lamented that his article was misunderstood, claiming that his intention was to implicate the amoral motivations of businesses as their gains will deny others of their human rights. It is not difficult to see why his article was misunderstood, since his few criticisms of Bolsonaro are attributed neutrally to “critics.” His apparent optimism for Canadian businesses is the real substance of the article. Judging from Arsenault’s other articles, his professed motivations are probably genuine. What’s interesting is how this article reads after it has been filtered through CBC.
It is unclear whether or not CBC explicitly told Arsenault to strip his article of any substantial criticism in order to not offend Canadian businesses. Regardless, an article of any other nature probably would not have been published. It is CBC’s financial imperative — though CBC is far from unique — to appeal to powerful business leaders and government officials while presenting palatable narratives to the public. Sometimes, the attempt at doublespeak fails, as it did in CBC’s tweets immediately following Bolsonaro’s election. Usually, it is inoffensive and banal.
The day after Bolsonaro’s election, John Paul Tasker wrote a CBC article titled, “Canada issues terse statement after far-right candidate elected president of Brazil,” with the subheading, “Trump, meanwhile, welcomes Bolsonaro with enthusiastic tweet.” The article implies that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was moved by moral imperatives to extend an unfriendly, though professional, hand to Bolsonaro. Of course, Tasker may not really believe that Freeland’s policies are motivated by a concern for human rights in Brazil. In fact, Tasker might believe that Freeland’s policies have not been motivated by a concern for human rights under the regimes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, or under the United States and NATO’s involvement in the Middle East. But after CBC’s minor public relations foibles the previous night, CBC needed to return the focus to its narratives of Canadians with real power, in a moral language that its average reader would readily receive.
Canada’s exploitative mining projects in Brazil have been horrendous, but not nearly as costly as its projects in other parts of the world. This is due in part to Canadian mining company Belo Sun’s inability to pursue its project after the Brazilian federal court moved to protect Brazil’s Indigenous people — which, Arsenault noted in his article, will probably change under Bolsonaro’s presidency.
To predict how the Brazilian case may play out in Canadian media, we should look to the projects of U of T alum, the late Peter Munk. In his article in Jacobin two years ago, titled “Canada’s Dirty Secret,” Gerard Di Trolio described the human rights abuses committed by Canada’s mining and oil companies worldwide. At the time of Trolio’s article, Munk’s Barrick Gold was globally the largest gold mining company. Barrick Gold’s abuses traversed the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Tanzania, Eritrea, and Guatemala. Trolio referenced Munk’s response to gang rape committed by Barrick Gold’s security in Papua New Guinea: “Gang rape is a cultural habit. Of course, you can’t say that because it’s politically incorrect. It’s outrageous. We have to pretend that everyone’s the same and cultures don’t matter. Unfortunately, it’s not that way.”
In 2014, Tracy McVeigh published an article in The Guardian International on deaths at the hands of Barrick Gold’s security and funded police. In 2015, Renee Lewis of Al Jazeera published an article on activism in the Dominican Republic against Barrick Gold’s water pollution, environmental destruction, and disregard for local opposition. In 2016, Telesur published an article on Barrick Gold’s chemical spills in five rivers in Argentina. The list of reported abuses is long, but the coverage by large Canadian news organizations is frequently nonexistent. CBC has not published critical articles on Munk’s company’s human rights abuses nor his subsequent contempt for the people affected by his colonial project. Following its own internal logic, it only makes sense that CBC’s video shortly after Munk’s death earlier this year presents a truly cartoonish hagiography praising his “philanthropy,” while ignoring the unflattering details that are the substance, not the footnotes, of his career.
The point of this is not to discredit CBC. What I am trying to present, though, is the amount of outrage that is produced when mainstream media institutions fail to speak convincingly in high and low moral registers at the same time. The average reader is not only morally outraged, but they are also deeply offended that the presentation of Canada does not mesh with their conception of Canada. To be angry at CBC, to demand that CBC polish its public relations capacities, is to miss the fact that if institutions like CBC were to comment exclusively on the most powerful business leaders and political officials of the country, our picture of Canada would be very different.
To paraphrase a witticism of Oscar Wilde, our rage at institutions that project the voices of the powerful is comparable to “the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.”