Brazil’s 2020 municipal elections: RSF’s five recommendations to city councillors on protecting press freedom

Amid a decline in press freedom and freedom of expression in Brazil, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on those who were elected as councillors in last Sunday's, November 15th, municipal elections to commit to principles that protect the right to inform and the free exercise of journalism.

With new terms of office for mayors and city councillors in 5,570 municipalities, last Sunday's, November 15th, municipal elections are a milestone in the political dynamics of Brazil. In the middle of a pandemic, voting took place in an atypical context, in which, in many parts of the country, citizens had to make their choice without the basic tools to inform their vote, such as debates between candidates and door-to-door campaigns.

The elections also took place in an increasingly unfavourable climate for press freedom and freedom of expression. Brazil fell two places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index in 2020, to 107th out of 180 countries. The environment has become more and more hostile to press freedom since Jair Bolsonaro took office as president, with direct attacks on journalists, communicators and media outlets by public officials at all levels (see RSF’s quarterly analysis (1) (2) (3))

The municipal elections could nonetheless provide a new opportunity to combat violations of these basic rights. Various tools are available to mayors and councillors not only to protect journalists and communicators, but also to promote understanding in society that a free press is a prerequisite for a full democracy.

Under Brazilian law, city councillors act as legislators at the municipal level, so their primary roles include creating, repealing and amending laws that come within the scope of the municipality they represent. It is also up to councillors to oversee municipal executive power, represented by the mayor.

In this light, we are recommending five ways in which Brazil’s newly elected municipal councillors can defend and promote press freedom, freedom of expression and the free exercise of journalism. RSF will be watching to see if they adopt these recommendations during their terms starting in 2021 and will be ready, whenever possible, to monitor and guide the implementation of measures in line with these recommendations.

  • Recommendation 1 - Guarantee the right to inform and commit to transparency 

Repeated decisions by the Brazilian judiciary have stressed the unconstitutionality of preventing or hindering access by journalists or media outlets to documents and information of public interest held by state bodies, or even preventing or hindering public access to published journalistic content or content due to be published. The Federal Supreme Court regards such practices, known as “prior censorship” or the creation of a “chilling effect,” as unconstitutional.

RSF recommends that elected councillors commit to combating such censorship practices, either through the drafting of legislation, or through public denunciation and a commitment to vote against laws that may directly or indirectly impact these values in their municipality.

RSF expects councillors’ advisers and employees to be in tune with these democratic values and practices.  If they fail to do so, they should be removed from their public functions.

  • Recommendation 2 - Combat the harassment of journalists and commit to the protection and safety of media professionals

Brazil is a fraught country for journalism, one in which journalists are often exposed to verbal and physical attack and even murder in connection with their work. It is important to emphasize that attacks against journalists in connection with their duty to inform the public constitute an attack on society as a whole and should therefore be energetically combated by means of state policies.

RSF urges councillors to commit to protecting journalists against threats and attacks and to provide their work with greater security by means of laws that more effectively penalize any form of violence against them. We also hope that councillors will hold public hearings for journalists from their municipalities so that proposed laws are better attuned to journalists’ needs in terms of protection and security.  

  • Recommendation 3 - Allocate advertising ethically and transparently

Municipal governments can indirectly promote censorship in the way they allocate advertising to media outlets. A lack of proportionality, coherence and sound criteria in the allocation of advertising can make media outlets totally dependent on the state sphere or starve them of funding, compromising editorial independence and the quality of published information.

By concentrating advertising on a few media, instead of spreading it across a diversified range of outlets, authorities can end up preventing reliable information from reaching a larger number of people and restricting the public’s right to be informed.

RSF urges municipal councillors to ensure accountability in the city’s spending on media outlets, and to do so carefully and thoroughly, and bearing in mind the need for diversification.

  • Recommendation 4 - Maintain a proper and respectful relationship with the press

The defence of constitutional values and principles with regard to free speech and press freedom should be part of the daily practice of every public official, starting with their dealings with the press. 

RSF expects councillors, and their advisers and employees, to be cordial and respectful in their dealings with journalists, communicators and the media, without exception. Councillors should not give preference to certain journalists or specific media outlets when granting interviews, and should not deny any journalist or media access to a public place for the purpose of their reporting.

  • Recommendation 5 - Encourage local and independent journalism and media plurality 

Around 2/3 of Brazilian municipalities do not have any journalistic production of their own. They are the so-called news deserts (see the complete research at Atlas da Notícia, Instituto Projor). In practice, this phenomenon isolates individuals and prevents them from identifying with the news and information they access. It occurs for several reasons, including a lack of investment in local journalism and incentives for independent production. RSF believes that news and information should circulate widely and freely outside large urban centres, so that the exercise of free speech and press freedom in Brazil is more democratic.   

We therefore urge councillors to give special consideration to legislation that encourages local and independent journalism, whether by means of advertising or direct subsidies, in order to encourage the flow of information that aims to portray the social life, politics and culture of the municipality. RSF also urges councillors to hold public hearings that give voice to local reporters and editors, to help ensure that legislation meets the locality’s specific needs.

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Updated on 17.11.2020