Exposing pre-Olympic human rights abuses in Rio de Janeiro
Elon University Lumen Scholar Michelle Alfini visited Rio de Janeiro to analyze the media’s lacking coverage of human rights violations prior to this year’s Olympic Games and fill the void in coverage through her website, RightingRio.com.
By Sarah Collins ‘18
As a longtime fan of the Olympics, it was difficult for Michelle Alfini not to notice extensive media coverage two years ago of human rights violations taking place in Russia, host of the 2014 Winter Games.
Stories abounded about forced evictions of families whose homes were in the way of stadium projects and infrastructure improvements. Of migrant workers and the conditions under which they toiled. Of LGBT discrimination. Of environmental harm. The broadcast journalism major also read countless reports of Russian journalists punished for criticizing their government for such abuses.
Alfini expected the same media frenzy over human rights violations leading up to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil, too, was dealing with issues of forced evictions, poor treatment of workers and environmental degradation.
But in American media, the silence is deafening – and with support from the Lumen Prize, Elon University’s top prize for undergraduate research and creative achievement, Alfini sought to understand that discrepancy. Her work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2016.
As part of her research, Alfini travelled to Rio in October 2014 and January 2016 to witness firsthand Brazil’s disregard for certain humanitarian standards.
She worked with the American nonprofit Catalytic Communities that sponsors RioOnWatch, a community-reporting platform, to learn about social injustices occurring during Olympic preparations. On her second trip to Rio, Alfini visited the city’s newly constructed Olympic Park. A favela, a Brazilian ghetto in the vicinity of the stadium, had been destroyed to make room for the stadium’s construction.
“I always knew it would be beneficial to visit Rio to understand what was going on, but to actually see a favela leveled next door to the Olympic Park was chilling,” Alfini said. “You understand why the government would want to cover it up, because it looks so bad.”
While on her second trip to Rio, Alfini unexpectedly encountered a worker’s protest. Laborers who had been laid off after constructing the tennis arena gathered before the newly completed structure, shouting complaints about not receiving their last month’s salary. The protesters crowded behind the live shot of a Brazilian news camera and ripped a tennis jersey in half, vying for public attention.
During her short stay in Rio, further protests about rising bus prices and the misuse of Olympic funds broke out across the city. As a speaker of Portuguese and Spanish, Alfini was able to converse with natives that struggle with mixed feelings about Rio’s role as an Olympic host.
“They’re so proud and want the world to see Rio, but at the same time, there’s a feeling that the country isn’t ready to take on something this big,” Alfini said.
What explains the differences in media attention this time around? By analyzing print articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as CBS and Sports Illustrated broadcast pieces, Alfini has concluded that American journalists felt more comfortable criticizing the Russian government’s oppression of free speech than shining light on Rio’s complex problems with homelessness and fair wages.
She also identified Russia as a larger international interest to the United States, an explanation for more extensive coverage prior to Sochi.
While Alfini expects coverage of preparations in Rio to skyrocket in coming months, she anticipates the majority of new journalism will focus on the spread of the Zika virus in Brazil rather than the population’s economic concerns. The CDC estimates more than 1 million Brazilians have been infected with the virus since last year, and concern continues to mount with hundreds of thousands of visitors expected in Rio this August.
Alfini used her findings to develop a multimedia website about the violations she witnessed in Brazil. RightingRio.com features a collection of original stories and photographs. “This project is something that I’m so proud of,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to share my findings with others.”
The Lumen Prize provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.
Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.
The name for the Lumen prize comes from Elon’s historic motto “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”
Alfini worked with Associate Professor Glenn Scott, a former journalist with experience covering four Olympic Games. She said Scott’s prior knowledge helped her understand just how much infrastructural development is required for a successful Olympics.
Scott thinks just as highly of his student researcher.
“Michelle is a non-stop scholar and journalist,” he said. “She’s brave. She’s smart. She’s relentless. She seems to have a limitless energy for this.”
Alfini plans to submit a piece from her website to the Hearst Multimedia Enterprise Awards, and she will present her project next month at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Southeast Colloquium in Baton Rouge.
“She’ll be one of the few undergrads there presenting research,” Scott said. “She’ll be sharing the scene with doctoral candidates and professors from major research universities.”
Outside of her research, Alfini is an Honors Fellow and works as the web manager for Elon Local News. The native of Severna Park, Maryland, ultimately hopes to work as a Latin American correspondent for a U.S. news network.
“When I was applying, Elon seemed like a place that if you had an idea, they could make it happen,” Alfini said. “That has definitely become a reality for me.”