RIO DE JANEIRO - Unhappy with the portrayal of her community in the mainstream press, single mother Carla Siccos decided to create her own media platform to highlight a different side of life in Rio de Janeiro’s infamous City of God.
“The growth of community-run media in the City of God, internationally notorious because of the gangster movie that bears its name, is part of a broader trend in Rio’s often-violent slums, or favelas, media experts said.
The explosion of free social networking platforms has allowed poor residents of favelas, communities where residents often lack formal property rights and worry about being displaced, to tell their own stories.
“Reporters from outside come for the bad news, but the good news just flows away,” said Siccos, editor of CDD Acontece (City of God Happenings), a volunteer-run media portal covering the community.
“I created this to show people the good news inside the community,” she told Reuters.
“I work to tell stories that connect people to each other,” she said, standing beside small brick houses in the neighborhood 20 km (12 miles) from central Rio.
With more than 53,000 likes on its Facebook page and several thousand more receiving updates through a WhatsApp group, the platform publishes news about local events, new training courses, business openings or parties.
Community media ‘boom’
The site has shone a spotlight on local residents who have made it big, including a dancer who went on to join the Cincinnati ballet in the United States, Siccos said.
Judoka Rafaela Silva, who grew up in the City of God, won Brazil’s first gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, bringing a wave of positive local media coverage to the community.
City of God Happenings is part of a “boom in community-focused media in Brazil’s favelas,” said Stuart Davis, a communications professor at Texas A&M University.
While the site focuses on good news stories, other favela media projects tackle controversial issues, such as rights abuses, corruption or displacement in untitled neighborhoods, he said.
“There is a rise in very local media projects: people focusing on neighborhood issues,” Davis told Reuters.
One of the best known is media collective Papo Reto (Straight Talk), which was set up in the Complexo do Alemao favela to document abuses by security forces and counter stereotypes.
There isn’t a lot of data on how many favela-based news services are operating in Rio or nationwide, said Vicky Mayer, a professor at Tulane University who studies independent media, as volunteer-run projects frequently shut down or shift focus.
But the platforms are important because citizens who don’t have secure ownership of their homes and can face displacement “need to have representation in the media,” Mayer told Reuters. “It’s about establishing one’s citizenship in the favela.”
Home to more than 20 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s population, many of the city’s favelas began as hillside squatter communities whose residents lacked formal property titles or land rights.
The City of God, in contrast, was purpose-built in the 1960s for Brazilians displaced by natural disasters in other parts of the country or people forced out of favelas near wealthy enclaves of Rio.
Initially a planned neighborhood, its first wave of residents had formal property title deeds allowing them to buy and sell their small homes in the market, unlike nearby favelas.
Designed for 15,000 people, City of God now has more than 60,000 residents, said community activist Rodrigo Vieira.
“Most of the people here have a formal postal code and addresses unlike other favelas,” Vieira told Reuters.
A volunteer at an old folks’ home, he welcomes media projects challenging the stereotypes of the area that followed the movie “City of God,” in 2002.
The community was the second favela in Rio to receive police units under the city’s so-called pacification program, which combined aggressive enforcement targeting gangs with public investment in low-income areas.
But violent crime persists and has grown worse in the last 18 months, Vieira said, as Brazil’s recession leaves people desperate.
“Gangsters will sometimes call and say ‘Don’t let the old people out of the home tonight, there’s going to be a shooting,’” Vieira said.
Walking past a graffiti mural of gun-toting characters from the City of God movie, Siccos the editor said she wants to focus on positive coverage of the neighborhood, despite its problems.
Since its launch in 2011, the site has expanded quickly.
Siccos attended journalism school to pursue the project, but has no plans to move the site beyond digital platforms.
“I don’t want a print version: just look at how the city deals with its trash,” she said pointing to a stagnant water canal full of garbage in the City of God.