Following the second round of voting on 29 November in Brazil’s municipal elections, the country’s cities now know who will govern them during the next four years. Mayors are starting their terms with many challenges ahead and in an especially fraught context caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Brazil’s municipalities suffer from chronically poor and inadequate education and health services, but the right to access information has also been denied. This has notably been the case in Rio de Janeiro, where members of the current municipal administration took turns to station themselves outside the city’s hospitals in order to prevent journalists from doing interviews and reporting shortcomings.
Elected mayors are at the head of executive power at the municipal level and have a duty to manage the city for which they were elected. This not only includes levying taxes and fees and funding works, services and policies essential for life in the city, but also ensuring that all types of information of public interest reach the population.
Considering the role of mayors under the Brazilian constitution, RSF is proposing five recommendations to those elected to this position so that they can fulfil their campaign commitments and ensure that the population enjoy all their rights, including access to information, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.
As with city councillors, RSF will watch what mayors do in office, in particular their compliance with these recommendations, and will be ready, whenever possible, to monitor and guide the adoption of measures in line with these recommendations.
RSF’s five recommendations:
1 - Ensure the right to information and a commitment to transparency Brazil’s courts have repeatedly denounced the unconstitutionality of preventing or hindering access by journalists and media outlets to state-held documents and information of public interest, or even preventing or hindering public access to published journalistic content or content pending publication. Practices that are tantamount to prior censorship or have a “chilling effect” are unconstitutional and must be stopped, the Federal Supreme Court has ruled.
RSF urges mayors to combat any kind of censorship, to reinforce the constitutional principles of freedom of expression and press freedom, and to ensure the transparency of information about their management of public affairs, both in their public policies and by use of a veto whenever any law threatens to hurt these principles directly or indirectly in their municipalities.
RSF expects their political allies to share these same principles and to be removed from public functions if they fail to do so.
2 - Combat harassment of journalists and provide them with protection and security
Ranked 107th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Brazil is a problematic country for media personnel. Attacks on journalists in direct connection with their work, including verbal and physical assaults and even murder, are not uncommon. Attacking journalists who are trying to provide the public with information constitutes an aggression against society as whole and therefore needs to be energetically combatted in state policies.
RSF recommends that mayors should create or maintain digital platforms with specific and constantly updated information on threats, harassment and attacks against journalists in their respective municipalities.
RSF also recommends that mayors should promote public campaigns and, in partnership with the private sector, organize congresses and symposiums designed to raise public awareness of the relevance of journalistic activity and the gravity of threats or attacks against journalists.
3 - Allocate advertising ethically and transparently
The allocation of public advertising is often used to promote indirect censorship of the press. A lack of proportionality, coherence or sound criteria in the allocation of advertising can make a media outlet totally dependent on the public sphere, or starve it of funding, compromising editorial independence and the quality of published information.
By concentrating advertising in a few media outlets, instead of distributing it across a broad and diversified range of outlets, a public administration may end up preventing reliable information from reaching many people and restrict the public’s right to information. RSF asks mayors to provide a clear, objective and specific accounting, in all government communication channels, of advertising funds allocated to media outlets. This statement of accounts should detail which media outlets were chosen, the amount of money paid to each, the criteria used, and whether any extra expenses were authorized for that purpose.
RSF recommends proportionality in the allocation of advertising, with no selective or privileged allocation, especially with regard to websites, blogs and other Internet-based media outlets. Advertising should not be placed with media outlets whose owners or editors have a corporate or family relationship with the mayor, their relatives, party officials, or employees of the mayor's administration.
4 - Maintain a proper and respectful relationship with the press
The defence of constitutional values and principles related to freedom of expression and press freedom should be reflected in the daily practices of every public official. And a first step in this direction is the public official's dealings with the press.
RSF recommends that mayors and all municipal civil servants and employees should always be entirely cordial and respectful in their dealing with journalists and the media. No direct or indirect representative of the municipal administration should give certain journalists or media outlets preference when granting interviews, nor deny journalists or media outlets access to public places in the course of their reporting.
5 - Encourage local, independent and pluralistic journalism
An estimated two thirds of Brazil’s municipalities lack any locally-based media outlets. They are the so-called news deserts (see the complete research: Atlas da Notícia by Instituto Projor). This phenomenon, which isolates individuals and makes it harder for them to identify with the news and information they access, is attributable to several factors including a lack of investment and a lack of incentives. 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.
RSF recommends that mayors should earmark advertising for independent, local media outlets and to television programmes, newspapers, magazines and Internet channels that portray the municipality's socio-cultural and political reality. RSF also hopes that mayors promote and encourage campaigns, awards and projects that increase the visibility and consumption of local media and local independent journalism.