RioOnWatch: Full Interview for Viva Favela [December 2014]

In December 2014 Catalytic Communities was interviewed by Juliana Portella for this piece on RioOnWatch for Viva Favela. Here is our full response:

Editorial Line

1 – Tell me a little bit about the site’s editorial line: what type of publications do you usually approve? (Explain a little about the freedom of expression that correspondents have in relation to the changes Rio’s favelas are experiencing.)

RioOnWatch (Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch) is a project of Catalytic Communities (CatComm) designed to bring local and global attention to the viewpoints coming from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro through 2016. RioOnWatch is the only news site in English and Portuguese that publishes the perspectives of community leaders, favela residents, and international observers in relation to the rapid urban transformations that currently characterize Rio.

With preparation for the mega-events, urban transformations are occurring in a rapid and authoritarian manner, without popular participation. RioOnWatch aims to amplify community voices speaking about the processes underway, promoting community solutions and sustainable and participatory development of the favelas. has a strategic vision that guides all publications: we take advantage of the knowledge of our editors—about urban processes taking place in cities elsewhere, for example—to facilitate debate on the current situation in Rio’s favelas. The news site stands out and is becoming a growing reference worldwide for bridging the hyper-local (following processes and publishing news in specific communities throughout the years) and the global (ensuring that people anywhere can follow Rio’s favela news), and bringing information about global urban tendencies to the debate in Rio around the development and empowerment of Rio’s favelas. For example, we were the first to publish articles about the new wave of removals beginning in 2010, and we were the first to present the idea that the process of gentrification was beginning to take place in favelas in 2011.

Within the editorial line, which always aligns itself with the community perspective, correspondents have freedom of expression in relation to the changes that favelas are experiencing. Selection of articles and themes is based on the strategy of informing and stimulating debate about the roles, qualities, and transformation of Rio’s favelas. We encourage community correspondents to express themselves freely. For international observers and researchers that contribute to the site, we always orient them to focus on community perspectives, basing material on interviews with favela residents and community leaders.

Correspondents and Contributors

2 – Do you fully preserve the correspondent’s contribution, or do you edit material?

There is an editing process to verify information and guarantee the quality of the site’s content. We evaluate the material, and if information, depth, or citations are missing, or if there is a need for fact-checking, we contact the correspondent to do this work him or herself. When we edit material more intensely, the writer checks and approves it prior to publication.

3 – About the correspondents: how are they chosen? Can anyone publish, or is there preference for journalists or communication students? If you don’t require a journalistic degree, don’t you think this discredits the information?

In general, there are three categories of correspondents for RioOnWatch:

  1. Community journalists and communicators who propose stories through the site or by email or whom we seek out when we see material they have written, for example, via a private Facebook page. We evaluate the proposal and approach, and we request the material based principally on the quality of the idea and the suggestion. Upon soliciting the article, we may request a specific focus to maintain our editorial line, but generally we encourage the community journalist to do it in their own way. Original material from community communicators published on RioOnWatch is the only paid material on the site. The rest is provided in-kind.
  1. International observers, including undergraduate students or recent graduates, who are chosen through a process of selection and interview. It is necessary to commit to three months, speak Portuguese, and be interested in the topic at hand with focus on a specific area, such as housing, safety, human rights, communication, etc. The observer is then given a project that corresponds to his/her interest within RioOnWatch, producing articles under the guidance of the CatComm team.
  1. Collaborators and researchers who contact us, or whom we contact, who would like to contribute articles based on their field research.

We do not require a degree or formal qualification in journalism to contribute to the site, as we believe that this limits the quality and diversity of the voices heard, which would contradict our objectives, among which are the democratization of information and communication. We work with contributors to guarantee content quality, and in editing to maintain quality in the written form.

4 – Is there any training for correspondents? How does this work?

There is no formal training for correspondents. We have provided courses on community journalism and strategic use of social media in the past, but we see that many good courses already exist in the city, and our work is more efficient when we focus instead on providing a strategic channel for these numerous communicators and community leaders to express themselves.

RioOnWatch’s Role

5 – In the eyes of many, the favela is only a place of neglect and drama. What is the role of RioOnWatch in breaking this stereotype?

RioOnWatch’s work, and in greater part CatComm’s, is exactly that—the breaking down of stigmas affecting the favelas. We do this to achieve a greater objective: the participatory integration of the favelas via a process of recognizing their urbanistic qualities, community solutions, high degree of entrepreneurship, and cultural expressions. As long as the stigma (based on society’s mental conditioning, rooted in times of slavery and remaining through today) permeates the view of favelas, public policies will not be able to achieve improvements for residents. Current public policies, many of them well-written and attractive on paper, end up generating innumerous negative collateral effects due to the lack of recognition of favelas’ qualities. Because of this, theoretically positive policies end up generating more problems than solutions.

In 2010, we observed the beginning of the arrival of the greater global press in Rio, creating a window of opportunity through the Olympics, during which we would have a greater opportunity to transform global public opinion about favelas. Despite global public opinion being even worse with respect to favelas than local public opinion—Rio’s favelas are the most stigmatized urban communities in the world—it is easier to inform, thanks to foreigners’ lack of personal interest in maintaining the status quo. Because of this, RioOnWatch and CatComm have taken advantage of this window to inform mainstream global press outlets, generating a growing shift in the way favelas are being reported. Five years ago, you saw more material referring to favelas as if they were just crime, shacks, and sewage. Today, the innovation, economic victories, and human and urbanistic qualities of favelas gain space. We are currently finalizing a longitudinal study analyzing language used to refer to favelas in six of the most influential English-language newspapers. We believe that transforming global public opinion is a catalyzing step towards transforming local consciousness, which is currently based in a standard conditioned thought process adopted during slave times.

6 – News about drug trafficking conflicts in Rocinha spread across the world. Stories of combat in the largest favela in Latin America, which have led to several deaths, were the subject of the main foreign newspapers. The Financial Times reported that Rio’s government is considering building a wall to contain the favelas of Rocinha. What is the difference between RioOnWatch’s position and that of the international press about the conflicts in the favelas of Rio? Would the difference be that of who writes and lives there day-by-day?

The RioOnWatch project is larger than the site. It also includes a support strategy to the international media to cover Rio’s favelas in a just and precise manner. We see that often the media cover favelas without interviewing community residents. In material produced for RioOnWatch, and in the support we give to journalists of other media outlets, we promote residents as protagonists in the narrative of events and understanding of favela issues.

But yes, in these cases, the big difference is that the international news doesn’t attempt to understand the reasoning behind, nor the origin of, the problems that are reported, and it doesn’t even interview impacted residents, protagonists, or local activists. They tell stories as if they were the rule, without investigating the context that created the situation. RioOnWatch, in being managed by a non-profit organization that functions as and is financed by a large network of collaborators, is independent and has the freedom to both deeply research certain topics and publish articles that do not generate “ratings,” simply because they are important in the documentation of voices and events. We publish, for example, meeting reports, photo albums of communities that no longer exist, and profiles of local projects, material that the media doesn’t publish because it doesn’t “sell.” We were once told by a prominent US television producer, “show us something that makes good TV” and after providing them the opportunity of an exclusive interview with the family of Amarildo, the bricklayer tortured by Rio police in 2013, the same crew produced the 20-minute report with material shot in an interview with a notorious drug trafficker, obtained through payoffs for access.

7 – I read on the site that RioOnWatch was recognized nine months after the beginning of its activities and that you were contacted by the Associated Press in March 2011 for what would become the first article about favela evictions, which provoked more material on this theme by The Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, Al Jazeera,, Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports, The Independent, Al Jazeera’s The Stream, CBC Radio Canada, The Rio Times, and Chicago WBEZ WorldView (NPR), all in 2011, and of these, the last eight cited CatComm. Was this the expectation—to inform the international media?

At that time, it wasn’t. RioOnWatch began as an experiment, like all of CatComm’s projects (this is a standard part of our approach). We had the idea of starting a blog documenting the opinions and experiences of favela residents in this pre-Olympic context. This is why we gave it this name: Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch. The original blog was created so that students in our Strategic Social Media course in 2010 could learn how to use WordPress. But at the end of 2010, when the first evictions began to occur in Metrô, Vila das Torres, Recreio II, and the adjacent favelas, we sent collaborators to document the events, and we published their short articles. We also made some videos for RioOnWatchTV on YouTube, documenting those removals. We were among the first. And we were the first to translate this material into English. And with this, the greater media found us.

At this point we realized the large impact we could through the strategic development of the site, and we went forward, with the site becoming more and more a reference point and our investing greater and great time and energy in it.

Thank you to Kayla Boisvert for this translation.