This Friday, the 6th, Brazilian civil society organizations denounced the Bolsonaro administration at the 175th thematic hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), for systematic violations of freedom of expression in the country, attacks on the press, censorship of artistic and cultural freedom, stifling of social participation spaces and access to public information. In view of the complaints, the Brazilian government limited itself to denying the accusations, without presenting alternatives or concrete answers.
Emblematic cases of criminalization of journalistic practice were presented, such as that of journalist Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept Brasil, which gained international repercussion, and of Patrícia Campos Mello, of Folha de São Paulo, the target of death threats, defamation and all kinds of attacks. More recently, another journalist, Vera Magalhães, became the focus of attacks by the president and his family. It is worth mentioning that the charges at the aforementioned journalists are aggravated due to their sexist character.
For Margarette May Macaulay, Jamaican lawyer specializing in the defense of women's rights and Commissioner of the IACHR, there is a mismatch between what is constitutionally provided in Brazil and the Brazilian government's practice. “As a woman, I am very concerned about the fact that the President of the Republic attacks and directs aggressive and offensive statements at female journalists. This is a stark contradiction of constitutional rights, especially from a Statesman. When the president says things like the ones he says, it is like giving permission for everyone to treat women disrespectfully. What is happening is a huge cause of concern”.
The OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, asked for explanations about the anti-press rhetoric that has been adopted by public officials and rebutted the government's argument that there is a program to protect human rights advocates that includes the category of journalists. “No policy to protect freedom of expression can be consolidated without a prevention policy. And preventing attacks on freedom of expression includes promoting and valuing journalistic work. What the Bolsonaro administration has been doing is betting on anti-press rhetoric. There is no effective policy if one systematically disseminates that everything the press does is fake news and lies”, he said.
Lanza questioned the government about the use of constraints and threats. “It is evident that there is a policy of online, viral, massive and public harassment. I myself have been the target, on my Twitter, of attacks by Brazilian people threatening me. It is an epidemic of viral and online attacks. What are you doing about it?”.
Joel Hernández Garcia, vice president of the Inter-American Juridical Committee and special rapporteur on the Brazilian case, stressed that the IACHR is strongly concerned with the Brazilian scenario. “We did not accept the hearing for nothing, out of the blue. We accepted it because we are concerned about the situation in Brazil”, he stressed. “We have no doubt that Brazil, both as a society and a State, values freedom of expression. But we are going through an unusual moment. Unfortunately, the dynamics of communication with new technological tools has been used to stigmatize social groups and attack the right to communication and information. It is not something that only happens in Brazil, truth be said, but it is a policy of stigmatizing, above all, the media personnel”.
Renata Mielli, general coordinator of the National Forum for the Democratization of Communication (FNDC) and general secretary of the Centro de Estudos da Mídia Alternativa Barão de Itararéé, stressed that violence against media personnel in Brazil is not something new. The country ranks 105th among 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, in a situation that has been deteriorating in recent years. Artigo 19 highlighted in its Global Report on freedom of expression, released in December 2019, that Brazil has recorded a dramatic drop in its freedom indicators in the previous three years. “What motivated our organizations to turn to the Commission was exactly the crystallization and aggravation of the scenario of violations of freedom of expression, especially from 2019 on. What were diffuse violations, became an institutional framework for attacks on freedom of expression", they said at the opening of the session.
Censorship of artistic and cultural freedom was also the subject of a complaint by the Commission. Olivia Bandeira, from Intervozes, said that the federal government and its allies adopted the discourse - and the practice - of fighting a hypothetical enemy of the nation, 'cultural Marxism'. “It is a war that aims to eliminate artists and works that manifest positions different from those held by the government or that simply promote cultural diversity. There are already more than 40 cases of violation of freedom of artistic and cultural expression in 2019 and 2020 alone. Of these, 18 are the responsibility of federal administration bodies or officials, and 22 are at the state or municipal level, showing how the federal government's practice encourages and authorizes violations at various levels”.
In view of this scenario, the petitioner organizations at the hearing requested that the topic of freedom of expression in Brazil be treated as a priority within the framework of the IACHR, stressing the importance for the Commission to issue communiques for the most serious cases, resorting to precautionary measures when necessary. A joint official visit was also requested by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR/OAS, the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, together with the Commissioner for Brazil and the Rapporteur on the Rights of Women.
Helena Bertho, from AzMina magazine, presented her case to the rapporteurs. The Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, went to social networks to disqualify the journalistic work of the magazine for producing a report with information on safe abortion, whose source was no other than the World Health Organization (WHO). The minister threatened to bring the justice system against the magazine. “We have been living in fear of the direction that this investigation might take. Not because we have committed a crime. In this regard we are unconcerned, because we know we have only disclosed public information from one of the most respected organizations in the world when it comes to health. But the simple fact that a federal government ministry took the trouble to make this complaint, when any lawyer could identify that there is no crime there, scares us”.
Audiovisual producer Émerson Maranhão also presented the artistic persecution he suffered, highlighting that since the beginning of this government, “reports of canceled shows and exhibitions in public cultural centers have accumulated, lectures and academic events have also been prevented from happening, funding for important movie and theater festivals was suspended, making their existence unfeasible”.
When commenting on the case, Lanza pointed out that the State and the Public Power cannot interfere in public tenders and bids. “The denunciations that were made in the domain of culture show that policies are needed to ensure the neutrality of the government in relation to such processes. We are not saying which idea should prevail in a given society, but the government must have objective criteria both for cultural tenders and for the distribution of official advertising for the media", he said.
Government representatives at the hearing merely repeated the constitutional guarantees and the legal framework for the protection of human rights existing in the country, but which have not been respected by the Brazilian State. "There is no censorship in Brazil. The government, through the president, expresses divergences with sectors of the press, which is part of the democratic game. We reaffirm our commitment to the broadest freedom of expression for Brazilian society and the press. Every day the press makes all the criticisms and attacks that it finds pertinent, and there is no censorship initiative on our part", replied Alexandre Magno, deputy secretary of Global Policies of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights.
Part of the complaint also referred to the dismantling of public communication and successive censorship practices against journalists from the Brazilian Communication Company (EBC), such as the restriction on the use of the word "dictatorship" and of images of city councilwoman Marielle Franco, murdered in 2018. For EBC's legal advisor, Francisco Lima, there are no cuts or censorship in journalistic production. “What is there is respect. We do not use certain terms so as not to confuse or generate dubious understandings, proselytism is prohibited. The use of dubious terms ends up confusing the audience instead of promoting correct understanding”, he said.
Violence against black population
In times of authoritarianism and threats to Brazilian democratic institutions, it is paramount that civil society unites to guarantee human rights in the country. Following the session on violations of freedom of expression, the IACHR heard, from representatives of numerous organizations, complaints about police violence against black people in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The main points were the case of Paraisópolis, which took place last November and resulted in the murder of 9 young people in a police assault, and the homicides of children committed by security forces in Rio de Janeiro.
The Commission questioned the government about the impunity of police forces in cases against the black population and called for effective measures to fight racial discrimination.
IACHR, an independent and autonomous agency of the OAS, holds several sessions a year to discuss topics like this across the region. The agency is charged with observing and promoting the defense of human rights, acting as an advisory body to the OAS on this topic. Each session brings together hundreds of human rights advocates on the continent, as well as delegations from member States made up of senior human rights authorities, scholars, among others.