How Brazil’s media resist “Bolsonaro system” harassment

In this, the second of its quarterly overviews of the press freedom situation in Brazil in 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) analyses the strategy used by President Jair Bolsonaro and his closest allies to keep stoking mistrust of journalists and their work, and how the media have been fighting back.

The year has begun terribly for Brazil, which is embroiled in a serious political and institutional crisis and has been hit badly by Covid-19. During the second quarter, the Brazilian press – which has had to adapt to an increasingly hostile climate ever since Bolsonaro’s election in October 2018 – was the target of new attacks by the president and even more so by his family, his closest ministers and loyal online supporters.


This overview looks at the most significant moments in the second quarter, how the media reacted and how Brazilian society in its entirety has responded to the government’s authoritarian excesses and to the hate-filled, anti-media rhetoric coming from the highest level of government.


Family system with tentacles


The constant attacks by the so-called “Bolsonaro system” continued throughout the second quarter of 2020, with RSF registering at least 21 attacks by President Bolsonaro himself against journalists and the media in general, somewhat fewer than in the first quarter (which saw 32 cases).


This slight fall contrasted with intense activity by the president’s sons, especially on social media. During the second quarter, Rio de Janeiro municipal councillor Carlos Bolsonaro, (43 attacks), Senator Flavio Bolsonaro (47 attacks), and federal parliamentary representative Eduardo Bolsonaro (63 attacks) acted as the system’s armed wing, stepping up the offensive against journalists who are seen as a problem for the family and government.


Several of the ministers closest to the president, such as now-former education minister Abraham Weintraub (18 attacks) and minister for human rights, women and the family Damares Alves (4 attacks) also played a major role in the concerted efforts to destroy the credibility of Brazil’s leading media, reinforcing the perception of the media as a common enemy.

Attacks from the “Bolsonaro system” during the second quarter of 2020

On 8 July, Facebook reported that it had deleted 35 accounts, 14 pages, a group and 38 Instagram accounts identified as constituting a disinformation network in Brazil that had recently spread disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. Although those responsible had disguised their identities and any coordination, Facebook said its security policy desk suspected links between these accounts and members of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party and with his sons Eduardo and Flavio.

This hostility coming from the heart of the Bolsonaro system has inevitably had significant consequences. The government’s supporters have felt encouraged to follow suit and step up their threats against the press. The best example has been the Alvorada Palace, the seat of the federal government, which has been the setting for repeated public humiliations of journalists.


On 26 May, after the latest of many episodes of verbal violence and attacks by Bolsonaro supporters, the Globo group (which includes TV Globo, the O Globo and Valor Econômico newspapers and the G1 news website), the Bandeirantes media group, Folha de São Paulo (Brazil’s leading daily) and the Metropoles news website all decided to temporarily stop attending government press conferences.


In so doing, they joined the O Estado de S. Paulo (also known as Estadão) and Correio Braziliense newspapers, which had taken a similar decision shortly before on the grounds that their reporters’ safety was not guaranteed. RSF and its allies meanwhile used the violence as grounds for a court action calling for better security measures for reporters covering the president’s appearances before the media.


Covering pro-government demonstrations in Brazil’s main cities also became very dangerous. Several Estadão reporters were physically attacked by Bolsonaro supporters in Brasilia on 3 June. Among other incidents, graffiti saying “Kill a journalist a day” appeared on14 May and a TV Integraçao crew was attacked on 20 May in the state of Minas Gerais.


War over Covid-19 figures


Annoyed by figures showing Covid-19’s alarming progression in Brazil and, in particular, by a death toll now exceeding 1,000 a day, President Bolsonaro personally issued orders to the health ministry on 5 June for its daily bulletins to be given to the media at 10 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. so that the figures could not be reported during the prime time evening newscasts. “It’s over for the news on the ‘Jornal Nacional’,” he told TV Globo, one of the Bolsonaro family’s favourite targets, which he calls “TV Funeral.”


Interim health minister Eduardo Pazuello – Brazil has not had an official health minister since 15 May – referred the next day to over-reporting of Covid-19 cases, rather than under-reporting, and ordered several major changes in the way the pandemic figures are counted and announced.


In response to these decisions, an unprecedented alliance of leading media outlets was created on 8 June. UOL, O Estado de S. Paulo, Folha de S. Paulo, O Globo, G1 and Extra said they would henceforth work closely together to get their information directly from the local authorities in Brazil’s 26 states and the Brasilia federal district, and would announce the figures in their own news reports.


Transparency and access to information


Aside from the battle over the daily coronavirus figures, many scientists, doctors, researchers and NGOs have complained about the difficulty in obtaining information about the public health situation in general and information about every other kind of government activity. The issue has been the subject of dispute between various institutions.


A “provisional measure” signed by President Bolsonaro on 23 March amended the law on access to state-held information, suspending response time deadlines and imposing a requirement for information requests to be renewed during the coronavirus crisis. The members of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) voted unanimously to suspend this measure on 30 April.


The Forum on the Right to Public Information, an alliance of several Brazilian civil society NGOs, issued a report in May about the impact of the president’s provisional measure. It said that at least 24 requests to the federal government for information from 27 March to 27 April had been rejected on the grounds of the pandemic.


A survey entitled “Transparency to overcome the crisis,” which the NGO Article 19 Brazil published on 30 May to mark the eighth anniversary of the law on access to information, examined the secrecy culture and the obstacles encountered in trying to get information about Covid-19 test protocols, the number of tests carried out and hospital capacities.


The Comptroller-General’s Office (CGU), which is tasked with protecting state property and combatting corruption, decided on 8 June to reduce the number of documents that can be requested under the law on access to information. Some documents, such as ministerial legal advice to the president on whether to approve or veto laws passed by congress, are now confidential.


A survey published by the Poder360 website on 15 June reported a marked decline in the number of interviews on the coronavirus crisis that government ministers and health ministry representatives have been giving as the pandemic progressed in Brazil.


More responses from institutions and civil society


Several parliamentary and civil society initiatives have emerged in response to the hostility. On 28 May, congress announced the creation of the first cross-party Parliamentary Front for the Defence of Press Freedom. Its aim is to “guarantee free expression of thought, free exercise of journalism and free access to information” and to organize public debates on press freedom in close coordination with civil society, and exchanges on press freedom with parliamentarians in other countries.

The second quarter saw the submission of more than 40 formal requests for President Bolsonaro’s impeachment to the speaker of the chamber of deputies, who is in charge of analysing them. (The Pública agency lists them here.) They were filed by political parties, civil society organizations and citizen groups, and most of them cite the government’s attacks on the media.


It is ironic that, at this chaotic and unprecedented time in which the government’s authoritarian excesses are testing Brazil’s democratic institutions to the limits, the country seems to be discussing and debating freedom of expression and press freedom more than ever before.


Brazil is ranked 107th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 14.07.2020