The relationship between the press and the government has greatly deteriorated since the inauguration of President Jair Bolsonaro. He regularly attacks journalists and the media in his speeches. Structural violence against journalists, a media landscape marked by a high concentration of private ownership, and the effects of disinformation pose major challenges to progress on press freedom.
The Brazilian media landscape is marked by high concentration of private ownership, distinguished by a near-incestuous relationship between political, economic and religious ruling circles. Ten major corporate conglomerates, owned by the same number of families, share the market. The five biggest are Globo, Bandeirantes, RBS, Record and Folha. The independent work of journalists is in constant jeopardy, as the press endures heavy government interference.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018 created an especially complicated situation for the Brazilian press. The president regularly insults journalists and the media. He mobilises armies of supporters on social networks, as part of a finely tuned strategy of coordinated attacks that aim to discredit the press, which is labelled as an enemy of the state.
The federal Constitution of 1988 guarantees freedom of the press. And, as a general matter, the Brazilian legal framework is rather favourable to the free practice of journalism. However, the broadcast and telecommunications law is antiquated, permissive and inefficient. Reporters and the media are frequently the targets of abusive legal procedures at the hands of politicians and business interests, who use their influence to intimidate the press.
The big media companies are trying to re-invent their economic models in the face of the global press crisis brought on by the advent of online platforms. These corporations invest in numerous other business sectors, increasing the possibility of conflicts of interest and loss of editorial independence. Meanwhile, the local press is growing steadily weaker.
The Bolsonaro government’s aggressive rhetoric toward journalists and the press has contributed to strengthening of a hostile and distrustful attitude toward reporters in society at large. Wide dissemination of disinformation continues to poison the public debate.
Throughout the decade that ended in 2020, at least 30 journalists were killed in Brazil, the second most lethal country in the region for reporters during that period. Most vulnerable are bloggers, radio hosts and independent journalists working in small- and medium-sized municipalities in the interior, covering corruption and local politics. Online harassment and attacks on journalists, especially women, are on the rise.
However, journalists are exposed to being targets of police abuse in the context of massive demonstrations, intimidation perpetrated by criminal organizations (drugs, human trafficking) and interventions by parapolice in impoverished neighborhoods and provinces.