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Suzana Singer | Ombudsmanship Under Fire

Capas-da-Folha

Source: Suzana Singer, the ombudsman of the Folha de S. Paulo, reproduced in the Observatório da Imprensa.

“On the trail of the cartel,” 4/8/2013

Suzana talks back to “media guerrillas” a write-in campaign instigating the paper to get the goods on a corrupt political machine in São Paulo.

In an embarrassing moment, a federal deputy and senior PT eminence — Ricardo Berzoini (PT-SP) –expresses his disapproval of the Folha and its ties with the PSDB with a twit.

Are you like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee with the PSDB?”

That was a very creative translation, sorry. The politician suggests that the PSDB and Folha are in bed together. As if anyone doubted it.

My belief is that politicians should never, ever twit.

In any event, Suzana is a fighter and a straight-talker and offers a defense of Folha journalism that can be read alongside Saul Leblon’s more ominous vision of the media Zeitgeist.

For two weeks, the Folha has been the target of a “verbal guerrilla” on the Internet, to use an expression coined by the Folha in an editorial published last Sunday, “Myths of the Social Networks.”

The objective of this “guerrillla” is to get the Folha to publish accusations about involvement by PSDB politicians in the case of cartel  formation in contracts for railway and subway projects in São Paulo.

These guerrillas come armed with the reports published by ‘IstoÉ’ magazine, posts in pro-government blogs, and blocks of Facebook users accusing the paper of “armor-plating” the PSDB.

In order to discover whether this cause for complaint is just, it is necessary to separate fact and opinion. The Folha was the first news organizaation to publish news of Siemens and its plea agreement with Brazilian antitrust authorities in exchange for denouncing the existence of the cartel, of which Siemens itself was a member.

On July 14, the story occupied the top headline. The accompanying article informed readers that the cartel operated in at least 6 auctions, but alerted that “it is not known for certain the real extension and scale” of the scheme or the period in which it was active and the amount of financial damages it caused.

Ten days later, ‘IstoÉ’ ran a cover story reading  ‘The Bribery Pipeline of the PSDB-São Paulo,” with a report that republished the testimony in 2008, of an ex-employee of Siemens. The anonymous source had spreadsheets proving the formation of a cartel and the transmission of money to offshore companies owned by lobbyists. .

Although the magazine cover presented photos of Geraldo Alckmin and José Serra, the text did not present evidence of the involvement of the former governors nor of the payment of bribes. All that remained was the former employee talking about bribes to politicians, most of them Toucans’, and to directors of CPTM, the state metro rail company.

This same testimony had been published in 2009 by  ‘CartaCapital’, but without public repercussion at the time.

Read Carta Capital. Those guys are smart and very dialed-in

The managing editor of the Folha did not follow up on the information published in the magazine because the witness refused to speak to the Folha about the case.

Last weekend, ‘IstoÉ’ returned to work, this time in an attempt to quantify the amount of financial damage caused by kickbacks in the train and subway systems. The sources for this information were “persons with ties to the investigation,” which is underway at the Ministério Público de São Paulo and the antitrust autority CADE. It was concluded that the public coffers suffered a loss of  R$ 425 million.

The Folha responded with a report stating that “the calculation  of what was overpriced depends on a survey of contracts signed by CPTM and the Metrô, which has not yet been performed.”

Folha, quite properly, avoided repeating what was not, properly speaking, a direct investigation, but it did commit one error: the two stories that ran previously did not mention what party was in power during the government in which the cartel operated.

The infographic that ran alongide the text of this story list various suspicious auctions without mentioning that they occurred during Toucan governments — somewhere between the “criminal practices that moved freely through the Covas, Serra and Alckmin administrations (IstoÉ) and the clinical detachment of the Folha‘s report, it was possible to produce news coverage that was more informative and balanced.

Folha reports kickback case in SP Metrô and does not cite the name of any member of the Toucan government. I have never seen the like! Are you like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee with the PSDB?” That was the content of a twit from federal deputy Ricardo Berzoini (PT-SP). The blog ‘Tijolaço’ devised another slogan to be distributed by the “guerrilleros”: The Folha, it says, invented corruption without a corruptor.

The top headline the day before yesterday -SP Governor approved cartel in Metrô, Siemens says,” silenced a good part of our critics.  For the first time, the name of a Toucan  (Mário Covas) is cited prominently in our coverage.

The story, based on a document handed over to CADEby Siemens, said that the Sao Paulo government is accused of green–lighting the formation of a cartel and that this collusion may have continued during the Alckmin and Serra administrations.

Space was reserved for “the other side” and care was taken not to reach hasty conclusions, as the  “guerrilla” did in noisily demanding the publication of strident stories with unproven accusations.

As Columnist Elio Gaspari writes, the fact of a company the size of Siemens is willing to collaborate creates a unique possibility to “expose the metabolism of  grand larceny” in Brazil.

The newspaper cannot miss this opportunity, but it must perform its work without timidity and without rushing to judgement.