A Bolsonaro reelection poses biggest threat to Brazilian press freedom, says RSF

Brazil's president-candidate Jair Bolsonaro

Attacks on the media have been one of the hallmarks of Jair Bolsonaro’s first term as Brazil’s president. Supported by an increasingly virulent base and backed by disinformation campaigns, he has undermined press freedom and the right to information. His reelection would therefore pose a grave threat to the right to reliable news and information, and to democracy itself in Brazil, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Right from the start of his first term, President Bolsonaro adopted an openly aggressive and belligerent posture towards journalists, and repeatedly demonstrated a complete refusal to accept the media’s role in a democratic society,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the director of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “He sees the media as just propaganda tools that are supposed to serve his government. The possibility of a second presidential term for Jair Bolsonaro is currently the biggest threat to press freedom in Brazil. It would open the way to new and serious attacks on reliable news and information and Brazilian democracy"

On 2 October, Brazil’s 156 million voters are to elect a president, a two-chamber national congress, new governors and legislative assemblies for all of the country’s states for the next four years. Of all these races, it is the presidential one that is the most decisive for the future of press freedom in Brazil. Ever since his election as president in 2018, Bolsonaro has been the main catalyst for attacks on journalists, implementing a permanent policy of discrediting the media combined with the promotion of disinformation campaigns with disastrous consequences for the practice of journalism and the energy of public debate.

Hostile environment for journalism

President Bolsonaro's portrayal of the media as an enemy of the state to be combatted has always, but especially during this election campaign, enjoyed a great deal of resonance with his support base, which is well organised on social media. RSF has systematically monitored these online attacks ever since the start of the campaign on 16 August, and has observed no fewer than 2.8 million posts with content attacking and insulting journalists. Considering direct attacks, 86% were against women journalists. Large majority of this hostile content has been posted by supporters of the president, including his family and members of his government, who reach millions of Brazilians on social media.

The so-called “Bolsonaro system” (consisting of the president, his sons and his close ministers) was responsible for at least 580 coordinated attacks against critical media in the course of his second year in office, 2020 (see the survey by RSF). Another report published by RSF on the first half of 2021 showed that Bolsonaro had directly attacked the media 87 times on social media. These numbers have grown steadily since then.

A survey published in 2022 by RSF and Gênero e Número, an RSF partner organisation in Brazil, highlighted the dramatic consequences of these increasingly frequent attacks on the personal lives and work of women journalists. Eight out of ten women journalists said that they had to change their behaviour on social media in recent years, more than 50% said these attacks had impacted their professional routine, and 15% reported having developed mental health problems.

The intimidation and insults that are orchestrated from the highest government level are not limited to the Internet. Harassment, insults, vilification and humiliation of journalists have become commonplace in the Bolsonaro world during the past four years. Surrounded by government ministers and supporters at an event in January 2021 about abnormally high government spending on condensed milk, he said “condensed milk cans should be shoved up the backsides of the press” – to cheers and applause from the crowd. When a reporter from the O Globo newspaper group asked Bolsonaro an awkward question about corruption directly related to his family, during an official activity in Brasilia on 23 August 2020, the president replied: “I’ll punch you in the mouth, motherfucker!”  Such crude comments have been frequent throughout his first term and in most cases have triggered orchestrated attacks on the media on social media.

In response to a complaint filed by RSF and its Brazilian partners in 2020 about the vulnerability of journalists assigned to the presidential beat in Brasilia, the federal prosecutor’s office issued a judicial opinion in which it said special measures were required to ensure their security. This followed repeated attacks on journalists by the president's supporters outside the Alvorada presidential palace, and actions staged by Bolsonaro himself to humiliate critical media.

In 2021, Bolsonaro was added to RSF's list of press freedom predators. In June 2022, a São Paulo court ordered him to pay damages for collective moral harassment of journalists as a whole in an unprecedented legal action brought by the Union of Journalists of São Paulo. In her ruling, the judge in charge of the case highlighted the use of “homophobic jokes, xenophobic comments, vulgar expressions, incitement to hatred, contempt and intolerance towards journalists.”

Disinformation as method of government

Bolsonaro uses his anti-media rhetoric, his insults, defamation and humiliation, to discredit the media and its role as guarantor of pluralism of opinions and the proper conduct of public debate. This helps him to evade questions about the disinformation campaigns that are orchestrated from the presidential palace. It allows him to continue his lies about deforestation in the Amazon, to manipulate information about the pandemic, to ban access to compromising information about for his family for 100 years, and to suppress allegations of corruption within of the government.

Brazil's state communications agency (EBC) has been completely sidelined by the Bolsonaro government’s own propaganda. The Communications Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic (Secom) paid 3.2 million reais from January to May 2022 for live broadcasting of events at which Bolsonaro made at least 287 false and/or misleading claims.

Several videos of President Bolsonaro providing false information about the coronavirus pandemic and denouncing electoral fraud without any evidence have been taken down from online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.

During the last week of the election campaign, Bolsonaro dismissed the findings of opinion polls of voting intentions and insisted that the only possible election result would be his victory in the first round. Any other result would mean that there had been fraud, he insisted. So, Brazil now faces the possibility of a social explosion and a threat to its democratic institutions when the results of the first round being held on 2 October are announced.

At the beginning of August, RSF and 10 other press freedom organisations asked each of the 12 presidential candidates to sign an undertaking to respect journalistic freedom during the elections. Bolsonaro did not sign.

RSF met with the electoral observation mission of the Organisation of American States (OAS) on 27 September to draw its attention to the hostile environment for news media covering the elections.

Brazil’s ranking in RSF's World Press Freedom Index has fallen from 102nd in 2018 to 110th in 2020. Assessed by the security indicator alone, its ranking is now 124th. Further falls in the Index are extremely likely if President Bolsonaro is reelected.

On the eve of this election, the right to information is in greater danger than ever and Brazilian democracy hangs in the balance.

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