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Racism in Portugal: Does the media disregard the country’s dark past?

In Portugal’s parliamentary election last October, Romualda Fernandes, Beatriz Gomes Dias, and Joacine Katar Moreira made history by becoming the first women of African descent to be elected to Parliament. Dias, Gomes and Moreira all represent different political parties – the Socialist Party, Left Bloc and Livre, respectively – but their critiques of racism in Portuguese society have been credited with catalysing a debate that many see as long overdue.

A 2016 report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, while noting that Portugal had grown more tolerant and inclusive over the previous two decades, criticised the persistence of “Afrophobia” and “institutional racism” in the country.

In the years since, Portugal – like much of Europe – has witnessed a spike in far-right sentiment, with the 2019 election also marking the first time a far-right party won a seat in Parliament since the fall of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.

However, through observing the media discourse and the way the topic of race played out in Portugal’s mainstream media, one could get a rather different impression. A slew of opinion-makers – most, if not all, white – responded to concerns from anti-racist politicians and campaigners with a mixture of disbelief and denial: “Are the Portuguese racist?” asked the newspaper Sol. Columnists at the right-wing news website Observador were more definitive: “Portugal wasn’t and isn’t racist,” wrote one; another, meanwhile, contested the “myth” of a racist Portugal.

“I think we’re all racist,” explains Observador’s editor, Jose Manuel Fernandes, speaking to The Listening Post’s Daniel Turi. “That’s a battle that never ends. However, when it comes to institutional racism – I don’t think that exists in Portugal.”

For Joacine Katar Moreira, MP for Livre, reactions such as these came as no surprise: “This is very specific of Portuguese racism – the absolute denial that there is racism in Portugal.” In trying to explain this discourse of denial, some point to the lack of diversity in Portugal’s media industry. Portuguese journalists of colour are few and far between – something that Fernandes, too, acknowledges can skew the reporting of race.

However, Portugal is not the only country with a diversity problem in its media playground. For many, a stronger explanation lies in an ideology of Portuguese exceptionalism – one with deep roots in the country’s colonial past. Portugal was the world’s first global empires, reaching far across Africa, Asia and South America.

Despite the many horrors of that history, including Portugal’s leading role in the transatlantic slave trade, a sense of nostalgia for that era runs deep in the present. The media are no exception and appeals to a rose-tinted view of Portuguese colonialism.

“We travelled across Africa and Asia’s native populations, had children with them and in many cases we assimilated them,” notes the writer of the Sol article referenced above. “Having this discourse about the past is then transferred to the present,” says Joana Gorjao Henriques, author of a book called Racism in Portugal. “As a result, the media are incapable of noticing the inequalities that exist in Portuguese society.”

However, for Mamadou Ba, director of the NGO, “SOS Racismo”, these attempts to defend the colonial record through spectacles of delusion are also a response to the fact that critiques of racism – both historical and contemporary – are more visible than in the past. “There’s a certain right-wing elite who are trying to glorify the colonial past. They’re well aware that people of colour are getting more of a voice in the media, and so this is part of their strategy to undermine the rise of anti-racist politics.”