Bolsonaro vs. the Press

At the end of January, Daniel Arroyo was standing with his camera behind a line of masked crowd-control police. They were guarding a bank during a protest against a public-transit fare hike in São Paulo, Brazil. Arroyo says his back was turned to the officers when he heard one of them say his name: “And this Daniel Arroyo?” 

“He spoke loudly so I would hear him,” says Arroyo in an interview, who stepped up and asked who had said his name. The officers remained silent. 

Arroyo says the officer was trying to intimidate him because he is a photographer for Ponte, a human-rights news outlet that focuses on public security. In an earlier demonstration, Arroyo was standing amid a line of protestors while police with shields advanced into the crowd. He says one of the officers kicked him several times, despite the fact that Arroyo was wearing his press credentials and a protective helmet marked “PRESS.”

Asked to comment on Arroyo´s allegations, the São Paulo Military Police said all complaints are reviewed by an internal commission that “ensures the quality of its services to society.”

Unfortunately, Arroyo’s experiences are not unique. They fit into a larger trend in Brazil, where journalists are increasingly treated as a threat to the state. 

According to a January report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, there are currently twenty-two measures before Brazil’s Congress to expand the scope of the country’s 2016 anti-terrorism law. These proposals would expand the definition of terrorist behavior and impose stronger penalties. The report notes that events held by labor unions, social movements, and even religious groups could be classified as terrorism and particants charged with “abuse of rights.” 

In late January, Brazilian prosecutors charged Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, with cybercrimes. In June 2019, Greenwald and The Intercept’s Brazilian team published explosive text messages exchanged between former-judge Sergio Moro and prosecutors. The messages showed Moro coordinating with prosecutors to craft corruption cases. 

One of those convicted during Moro’s “Car Wash” investigation was popular former President Luiz Inácio da Silva, or Lula. Lula was the front-runner in the 2018 presidential election when Moro ordered him jailed. 

Several months later, with Lula in prison, Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency. Within days, Sergio Moro had been appointed Minister of Justice. In the immediate aftermath of The Intercept Brazil’s revelations, Bolsonaro threatened to imprison Greenwald. 

Meanwhile, the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists, or Abraji, recorded thirty online attacks and forty physical ones against journalists last year. Abraji also counted eight judicial attacks and six political strikes against reporters. Those institutional assaults included a judge’s decision to confiscate the digital equipment used to make and post videos criticizing a local magistrate. 

As part of that decision, the judge prohibited the videographer from leaving the town or approaching the court house. In another case, a jury absolved two men charged with killing a local radio reporter, although it acknowledged their participation in the crime. The man identified as ordering the murder is a former city council member. 

And Brazil’s National Federation of Journalists counted more than 100 instances in which President Bolsonaro discredited the press or called it the “enemy.” On eleven occasions, he attacked individual journalists.

Now, Cristina Zahar, executive secretary of Abraji, says a number of journalism, radio, and television associations are designing a plan of action. “The idea is to go beyond press releases denouncing the situation,” Zahar tells The Progressive. “Since it’s a strategy for delegitimizing the press, we all saw the need to come together to give a more effective response.”

Journalism in Brazil is also being attacked financially. The federal government has adopted measures aimed at punishing outlets that publish critical stories. For example, President Bolsonaro excluded Folha de São Paulo, one of the country’s leading newspapers, from the government’s subscriptions. 

In August, a temporary decree eliminated a regulation obliging public companies to publish certain information in print publications. At an event where he unveiled the measure, Bolsonaro targeted Valor Econômico, a well-known, conservative economic magazine. Brazil’s Congress failed to approve the measure, and it expired in December, but the magazine receives a significant percentage of its income from these announcements.

Some, however, say that the Brazilian press itself has contributed to its current crisis. Mainstream outlets were widely critiqued in 2016 as then-president Dilma Rousseff was accused of cooking the country’s books. Those allegations were used to impeach her, although other presidents and governors had used the same accounting methods without reproach. Rousseff’s supporters said the Brazilian media was complicit in her removal. 

Fabiana Moraes, who teaches journalism at the Federal University of Pernambuco, says the media did play a part in Rousseff´s ouster. She also pointed to a history of censorship and violence against the Brazilian press and cautioned via messages to The Progressive that the Brazilian press needs to “mature.” 

“Brazil has a complex journalistic scenario in which the press claims impartiality even when it overlaps with specific interests, always suggesting that others are ideological,” Moraes says. She warns that the press needs to learn that “sweetening the medicine” such as using other terms for racism when reporting, “can be extremely dangerous to democracy.”

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