Seven months after denouncing free speech and press freedom violations, Brazilian civil society organizations met again with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) yesterday to report that the situation is getting worse in their country. In response to the complaints, representatives of Brazil’s Bolsonaro administration described the violence suffered by journalists as "divergence of opinion" and said social isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic “hurt the rights” of the population.
The organizations described violations of the right to information and their impacts on the lives of indigenous people, women, the black population, children and adolescents, residents of favelas and peripheries, and the LGBTQI+ population, who have been denied access to reliable information. During the pandemic, Brazil's most vulnerable and marginalized population has had its rights to freedom of expression, education and health seriously violated.
“We return seven months later because the Brazilian situation has worsened, and the state is still failing to provide convincing responses to the complaints presented,” said Ana Flávia Marques from the Barão de Itararé Alternative Media Studies Center. “On the contrary, the attitude of the president, his ministers, and the Brazilian state has unfortunately been to step up hostility towards the press, promote censorship of media outlets and journalists, and violate the right to access information, taking public interest information about the pandemic off the air.”
The attacks on the press were denounced by journalist Patrícia Campos Mello from Folha de S. Paulo and by Pedro Borges, editor-in-chief of the Alma Preta portal. “The situation is especially critical for female journalists,” Mello said. “We are the target of defamation campaigns encouraged and amplified by the government. Since February this year, thousands of memes have circulated on the Internet in which my face appears in pornographic montages, calling me a prostitute and making allusions to sexual organs. I get messages from people saying that I offer sex in exchange for stories and that I should be raped.”
Borges recalled how he was insulted by Fundação Palmares president Sérgio Camargo, who described him as “racialist, victimist, anti-white and defender of outlaws” after a series of news reports accusing the Foundation of censoring the biographies of black personalities.
Camila Konder, from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said: “Attacks on the press by politicians are not exactly new, but in Brazil, since the re-democratization, we have never seen a system so structured and so aggressive. These are attacks to discredit journalism and sow distrust of the press in society.”
Article 19 executive director Denise Dora said: “Disinformation is a standard practice by this government and is completely allied with a strong, permanent, and constant attack on journalistic activity in the country. Disinformation is produced by attacking the free press and erasing public data. That is how an entire population is held hostage to harmful and undemocratic policies.”
Sandra Andrade from the Quilombola community of Carrapatos and the National Coordination of the Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (CONAQ) said the Bolsonaro administration had failed to mobilize to address the pandemic in quilombos and create conditions for quilombolas to have access to basic rights. “We demand a national plan to combat COVID-19 in the communities. We went to the Federal Supreme Court to demand our rights to tackle the pandemic. We expect nothing less than all of our guaranteed rights,” she said.
Intervozes executive coordinator Iara Moura stressed the importance of ensuring universal Internet access. “This year's data reveal that, in Brazil, more than 42 million people have never used the Internet. And these Brazilians have color, race, ethnicity, social origin. They live in rural areas or in impoverished neighborhoods in large cities. In the pandemic, the context is even more serious: around 7.4 million Brazilians eligible to receive emergency aid do not have Internet access at home.”
In response to the critical denial of access to information, National Commission on Human Rights vice-president Leonardo Pinho presented the recommendations prepared by the petitioning organizations. They include restitution and expansion of spaces for participation and social control in the fields of formulation and inspection of public policies; the guarantee of more transparency and the effective participation of civil society organizations in the Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, expanding and strengthening the program, with the development of an appropriate methodology for the protection of female communicators; promoting access to information in all spheres; the universalization of Internet access and, with it, the universality of the right to education, information, culture and leisure; the development of public policies for access to information specific to Traditional and Quilombola Peoples and Communities, with the allocation of resources for that purpose and the titling of quilombola territories; and the end of attacks on journalists and communicators, as well as the recognition of the fundamental role of journalism and communication, even when contrary to the interests of the government.
Finally, the IACHR was asked to organize an in situ visit by the Special Rapporteur to investigate and closely monitor violations in Brazil.
Government repeats previous responses, accuses organizations
Disinformation, a strategy often used by the Bolsonaro administration, was also one of the hallmarks of the hearing. Felipe Cruz Pedri, the Secretary of Institutional Communication of the Special Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency (Secom) and a former aide to Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, said the Brazilian state was the victim of ideological persecution and accused the organizations present at the hearing of censoring journalists and experts who defend positions contrary to those recommended by the World Health Organization.
“I come on behalf of Secom to remind everyone how the Brazilian federal government dealt with the issue of freedom of expression during this period of global concern about the coronavirus and the economic crisis caused by certain isolation measures,” Pedri said. “The whole world has experienced a period of strong debates about abusive measures that violated basic rights, including travelling, working, and practicing one’s religion. And the debate itself has become the target of such measures, which tried to restrict the free flow of critical opinions and thus violated yet another basic right”.
Alexandre Magno, the national secretary for Global Protection of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, repeated what was said at the hearing held in Haiti last March. After explaining how the Brazilian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, he gave a presentation about the Defenders Protection Program, which – although expanded to include journalists in September 2018 – has included only four journalists, with only one remaining in the program today.
Despite the descriptions by Mello, Borges and Konder of serious threats and violence – including the fact that President Jair Bolsonaro said, “I feel like punching you in the mouth” in response to one journalist's question – the government’s representatives insisted on portraying such statements as a “divergence of opinion.” Marcelo Araújo, a representative of the foreign ministry’s Human Rights division, said: “We emphasize that any divergence of opinion and thought is part of the democratic debate in Brazil. In this sense, the Brazilian state reinforces its internal, regional, and international commitment to respect and guarantee the right to the free exercise of the profession of communication and freedom of thought and expression.”
Araújo's response is contradicted by the data collected by organizations such as Article 19, which listed 449 violations against journalists and communicators by public officials linked to the federal government in the past 20 months. Almost once a day, since January 2019, the president, his sons, senators, representatives, and ministers attack the press.
At the hearing, the government was also represented by Flávio Werneck Noce, special advisor to the Ministry of Health; Bruna Vieira de Paula, coordinator of the Directorate of International Actions at the Ministry of Citizenship; and Débora Cristina Soares Santos, assistant to the Ministry of Education.
Among the commissioners, the most forceful position came from IACHR president Joel Hernandez, who said: “I want to express my total rejection of attacks on journalists, whether due to gender or race. This goes against the foundations of a democratic society. The state has an obligation to respect and also guarantee human rights. I call for these misogynistic actions to cease”.
It is worth remembering that the IACHR’s autonomy has been attacked from within the Organization of American States with the support of far-right governments including Bolsonaro's.
The holding of this hearing was the result of the joint work of the following 14 civil society organizations:
- Abraji - Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Barão de Itararé Center for the Study of Alternative Media
- Network Rights Coalition
- Coding Rights
- Conectas Direitos Humanos
- National Human Rights Council (CNDH)
- Contee - National Confederation of Workers in Educational Institutions
- National Forum for the Democratization of Communication (FNDC)
- Intervozes - Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social
- Instituto Vladimir Herzog (IVH)
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
- Terra de Direitos