It has now become routine for Brazilian journalists to report on image crises generated by presidential tweets—American colleagues might know the feeling better than anyone. The latest social media episode by President Jair Bolsonaro is yet another attack against the press, raising an already aggressive tone.

On Sunday evening, the president tweeted attacks on Constança Rezende, a reporter from newspaper Estado de S.Paulo who took part in the investigation that uncovered suspicions of money laundering involving Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s eldest son. In the tweet, Mr. Bolsonaro accuses the reporter of “wanting to ruin the life of Flávio Bolsonaro and seeking the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro.”

He also made sure to say she’s the daughter of Chico Otávio, a reporter from newspaper O Globo. Mr. Otávio has published several stories about Rio de Janeiro’s urban militias, including those revealing possible links between the president’s eldest sons and members of a death squad. But as far as the Bolsonaro clan are concerned, father and daughter are part of the same conspiracy orchestrated by elites and media barons to oust the president.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s tweet comes with an edited audio clip of Ms. Rezende speaking in English to an unidentified person about the investigation into Senator Bolsonaro, saying the audio proved “she was clearly motivated to destabilize the government,” which it does not.

The recording was allegedly made by Moroccan-born filmmaker Jawad Rhalib, as a sort of “gotcha” investigation against the journalist. He asked someone to pretend to be a foreign journalist studying Jair Bolsonaro and request an interview with the reporter. Mr. Rhalib’s blog post, dated March 6, was reposted by U.S. conservative publication The Washington Times, and then by a pro-Bolsonaro fake news website.

What this case shows is that the war on the media staged by Brazil’s far-right could rely on a model used by U.S. conservative provocateur James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas, an institution that “investigates and exposes corruption” through sting operations that often backfire. In 2017, it tried to trick the Washington Post with a fake sexual harassment story involving a Republican Senate candidate.

jair bolsonaro far-right press

Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive stances against the press are nothing new in Brazil

Making an already toxic relationship even worse

Attacks against the press are as typical of Jair Bolsonaro as his hateful statements against ethnic, gender, and economic minorities. A war on the media is the first lesson on illiberal politicians who rely heavily on disinformation to wins hearts and minds through fear. Any unflattering report is harshly dismissed as “fake news” and deemed as part of a plot against the president.

A week before the 2018 election, Mr. Bolsonaro called Brazil’s largest newspaper paper, Folha de S. Paulo, “the biggest fake news in Brazil” and threatened to cut off funds from advertising (in Brazil, the federal government and state-run companies are the biggest advertisers in news outlets). He also barred selected publications from participating in his first press conference and refused questions from a Folha reporter at another press event in late November 2018.

Then there was the inauguration ceremony on January 1. Members of the press had their movement restricted; those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were kept inside an underground press room for over 10 hours until the cocktail reception they would cover at the end of the day.

In office, his administration tried to reduce transparency within the federal administration by allowing any government agency or state-owned company have the ability to seal official documents for 25 years. After the backlash, the government gave up on the idea.

“An administration that restricts the work of the press goes against its constitutional duty,” said Brazil’s Association of Investigative Journalism in a statement.

An old playbook

While Mr. Bolsonaro is following the same playbook used by leaders like Donald Trump—which is deeply worrisome—there’s one aspect we shouldn’t ignore: the effectiveness of his strategy comes, in part, from the fact that the press has been depicted as the bogeyman for years now—both by the right and left. In more ways than not, Mr. Bolsonaro’s antics is a ramped-up and more insidious version of what the Workers’ Party did for a decade.

Before Mr. Bolsonaro went from rogue backbencher to the country’s highest office, the Workers’ Party elected the press as its enemy, calling negative reporting out as being part of an elitist conspiracy “against a government for the people.” That included when the press reported that the party illegally breached the tax information of an opposition candidate, or when the party tried to buy an illegal dossier against a political rival. Or when news outlets reported on Dilma Rousseff’s doctoring of the federal budget.

Like Mr. Bolsonaro, the Workers’ Party also relied on a network of fake news websites—many of whom were financed with government ads—dedicated to smearing journalists who published unflattering information.

By no means, the press is not without fault. On multiple occasions, the country’s few nationwide outlets chose the wrong side of history, such as when they supported the 1964 military coup. Not to mention the fact that a recent Reporters Without Borders study shows that at least 21 of the country’s main media groups had investments in other significant economic areas. But the lack of transparency means that these conflicts of interest are rarely well-known among the public.

If the press has lost credibility, it has certainly a lot to do with its own shortcomings. But it doesn’t help when the attacks come from both the left and right.

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BY Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.