In June this year Leandro Demori, the executive editor of investigative news site The Intercept Brasil, was summoned by Rio de Janeiro state’s civil police to give evidence. It turned out he was being investigated for slander against the force, after an Intercept newsletter signed by the journalist and distributed on 8 May raised the possible existence of a death squad within the coordination of special resources department (CORE) of Rio police. The newsletter was published after CORE officers committed the deadliest police massacre in Rio’s history in the Jacarezinho favela on 6 May.
‘It looks like an investigation to intimidate me. Instead of investigating what we denounced, the state decides to investigate the person who reported on it, the journalist,’ Demori told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at the time he was summoned for questioning. ‘It concerns us that this is becoming a pattern in Brazil’, he added.
Demori is indeed one of many journalists who have been targeted for their work in Brazil, a problem which particularly affects those who are critical of President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration, in what does appear to be a pattern.
Back in June, it rapidly emerged that the police officer in charge of investigating Demori had also issued a summons against two TV presenters, William Bonner and Renata Vasconcelos, last year after a complaint was filed against them by Flávio Bolsonaro, one of President Bolsonaro’s sons. The same officer led an investigation into Felipe Neto, a YouTuber with over 40 million subscribers, who in March 2021 was accused of slander against the president after calling Bolsonaro ‘genocidal’ in a video criticising the president’s Covid-19 response.
Marcelo Träsel, the president of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and a professor of journalism at the federal university of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), notes that there has long been an uneasy relationship between the press and the government in Brazil; but the situation has worsened under Bolsonaro.
A hostile climate
This has been observed by the likes of press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which in its 2021 World Press Freedom Ranking notes that ‘Journalism [in Brazil] has become especially problematic since Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president in 2018.’ Brazil is now ranked 111th out of 180 countries for press freedom, down four places on its 2020 ranking.
An RSF report released in late July outlines how attacks on the press by Bolsonaro and his inner circle have intensified in 2021. Attacks on the media committed by President Bolsonaro specifically increased by 74 per cent in the first six months of 2021, compared with the last six months of 2020. Overall, RSF tallied 331 attacks on the media by the so-called ‘Bolsonaro system’ in the first half of this year, a 5.4 per cent increase on the number recorded in the latter half of 2020.
The report focused on verbal attacks against the press and individual journalists, with RSF separately noting that ‘insulting, denigrating, stigmatising, and humiliating journalists has become President Bolsonaro’s trademark’. Abraji’s Träsel notes that Bolsonaro has kept up an aggressive rhetoric towards journalists, which goes from childish insults to physical threats. ‘This creates a climate of hostility towards the press in general, which even hinders journalists’ work when covering events with supporters of the president’, Träsel said in a phone interview, citing for example the fact that journalists who covered pro-Bolsonaro rallies on 7 September had to hide their press badges.
Intimidation takes many forms
As well as this hostile discourse, more institutionalised forms of intimidation are also used to undermine journalistic work, such as the use of judicial channels or ‘lawfare’. Demori’s case provides an example of this.
As with general attacks on the press, Träsel notes that the use of judicial mechanisms to hinder journalists’ work is not a new practice. It has nevertheless increased under Bolsonaro, particularly as there has been growing recourse to the now-revoked National Security Law (Lei de Segurança Nacional, LSN) in the last few years. This much-criticised piece of legislation dates from the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and outlines crimes against national security and against the social and political order, including vaguely defined affronts to the president.
The case against YouTuber Felipe Neto was based on the LSN, as was a June 2020 investigation into the cartoonist Renato Aroeira and the journalist Ricardo Noblat, who were accused of slander against the president for producing and sharing a cartoon associating Bolsonaro with Nazism. Both investigations were shelved, as were most of the cases launched under the LSN – but not before they have contributed to the erosion of freedom of expression.
According to one calculation, the number of investigations launched by the federal police based on this law grew 285 per cent in 2019-2020 – the law was often invoked to intimidate or silence Bolsonaro critics, but it has also been used in the past few years to go after the president’s supporters deemed to be attacking democratic institutions.
Criticised for its authoritarian legacy and vague wording, which left the door open to its arbitrary application, the LSN was revoked by congress in August this year. On 2 September, Bolsonaro approved the piece of legislation that replaces it, the Law for the Defence of the Democratic State of Law (Lei de Defesa do Estado Democrático de Direito). However, he vetoed some clauses which could have been used against his supporters, notably one defining ‘misleading mass communication’ as a crime.
The new law (which does not come into effect until December) defines crimes against the democratic order, such as a coup d’état or attempts to interrupt the electoral process. It is hoped that it will bring some legal clarity and is expected to be used to investigate radical Bolsonaro supporters – those who call for a military coup and demand the closure of Brazil’s democratic institutions, such as the supreme court.
However, the LSN’s revocation is unlikely to significantly reduce attempts to quash voices that are critical of Bolsonaro. Although the revocation has been sanctioned, it has yet to be implemented, leaving an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the application of the LSN and its substitute law. Furthermore, new channels for intimidation could emerge: currently under discussion in congress is the creation of an anti-terrorism agency subordinate to the president’s office. ‘This is a process which worries us quite a lot’, Träsel said of this initiative, which has been rejected by the left-wing opposition and public prosecutors, and which Träsel warns would essentially create a ‘political police’.
Main image: The Bolsonaro family vents more anger than ever against Brazil’s media. Reporters Without Borders