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Covid-19 not the only threat to press freedoms in Brazil

. May 03, 2020
Covid-19 not the only threat to press freedoms in Brazil Photo: Siam Pukkato/Shutterstock

Brazil has traditionally been a hostile country for journalists. Many prominent journalists fell victim to the authoritarian regimes that ruled the country over the 20th century. Others have died through the years at the hands of drug gangs and paramilitary mafias that preside over poor neighborhoods in several Brazilian regions. However, since 2018, the country has experienced a further decline in its press freedom indicators, with many attacks coming, in an organized way, from precisely those who should protect it — such as prosecutors, judges … and the president. 

In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro was responsible for nothing less than 58 percent of all attacks against the press accounted for in the country, according to a study by the National Federation of Journalists. Not even the worst pandemic in a century has managed to reduce the president’s vitriol towards press organizations — which Mr. Bolsonaro sees as “the enemy.” According to press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, over the first quarter of 2020, the president has delivered at least 32 direct attacks against journalists.

</p> <p>In the context of the Covid-19 outbreak, these attacks have become even more dangerous. On March 24, the day Brazil reached 1,800 confirmed cases, the president told TV station <em>Record</em> that “the public will realize fairly quickly that it has been deceived by the media.” A month later, the number of confirmed cases in the country has increased by nearly 55 times. And while the president continues to ignore the pandemic, the press remains as an essential — and sometimes lonely — watchdog.</p> <p>For Marcelo Träsel, president of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), since Mr. Bolsonaro’s government has “no good message to deliver, it tries to blame the messenger.” These attacks gain darker undertones when the reporters delivering unwanted reports are women. For instance, <em>Folha de S.Paulo&#8217;s</em> special Patrícia Campos Mello was <a href="https://cpj.org/2020/02/brazilian-journalist-patricia-campos-mello-faces-o.php">viciously attacked on social media</a> —&nbsp;and even during a congressional hearing for exposing an illegal misinformation network operated by the president&#8217;s political supporters and funded by pro-Bolsonaro business owners. Mr. Bolsonaro’s politician sons also stand accused of operating a “cabinet of hate,” an illegal disinformation group that routinely smears and attacks reporters.</p> <p>“Mr. Bolsonaro has always defended authoritarian regimes, and his behavior is not surprising given that. In addition to verbal attacks by authorities and attempts to retaliate outlets by jeopardizing their profits, the main impact of this political context is undermining the credibility of the press,” Mr. Träsel told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. “It encourages Bolsonaro supporters to physically attack or hinder the work of reporters. People feel entitled to offend and attack journalists due to the way the president treats the press.”</p> <p>The latest example came on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, when two <em>O Estado de S.Paulo</em> journalists were <a href="https://twitter.com/veramagalhaes/status/1256985371776356353">assaulted with kicks and punches</a> by a Bolsonaro supporting mob outside of the presidential palace, while the president broke social isolation measures to address his supporters.</p> <h2>Restrictions to press freedoms</h2> <p>In addition to direct attacks by the president, Brazilian journalists have endured further challenges in these trying times. A poll by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released last week found that <a href="https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/category/press-releases/article/exposed-the-crisis-facing-journalism-in-the-face-of-covid-19.html">three-quarters</a> of the world’s journalists have faced some sort of restriction on their work since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.&nbsp;</p> <p>In Brazil, this impediment came in the form of a presidential decree. In March, the president imposed restrictions on the Access to Information Act, allowing officials to avoid responding to access to information requests during the pandemic. On April 30, however, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to override this decision. On the occasion, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre Morais reminded that the &#8220;<a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/04/30/supreme-court-bans-bolsonaro-efforts-to-limit-access-to-information/">government has a duty to provide absolute transparency</a>.&#8221;</p> <p>Since the start of the outbreak, the Brazilian judicial branch has stepped in on access to information matters. In early April, Justice Morais ordered Mr. Bolsonaro to <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/04/02/supreme-court-justice-orders-transparency-from-bolsonaro/">present his government’s detailed response plan</a> to the pandemic. More recently, on April 27, a federal judge ruled in favor of newspaper <em>O Estado de S.Paulo</em>, which filed a lawsuit based on the Access of Information Access requesting that the president <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/04/29/brazil-bolsonaro-finally-disclose-covid-19-test-results/">released the results of his Covid-19 test</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>For Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, during a time in which governments have more freedom to limit civil liberties, other institutions are responsible for guaranteeing the executive branch is not overstepping its limits.&nbsp;</p> <p>“In many countries that had restricted access to information, the judicial branch overrode the decision, as it was the case in Brazil and Argentina,” Mr. Lanza told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. “However, we continue to see complaints by journalists and the civil society in relation to the release of accurate Covid-19 data. There is no justification, during a pandemic, to restrict access to public information.”</p> <p>Mr. Träsel agrees that “any restriction on access to information at this point would be illegal and constitute abuse of power.” For him, however, “such abuses make the press’ job harder, of course, but they also become the news, as it is the case with the president’s refusal to present the result of his Covid-19 test results.”</p> <h2>Invisible threats</h2> <p>Brazil currently ranks 107 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, falling two positions since last year. Among all democratic Latin American countries, Brazil only ranks higher than Colombia (130), Guatemala (116) and Mexico (143), all countries in which violence against journalists is common.</p> <p>Last week, a national study found that more Brazilians are presenting <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/04/28/quarantine-exacerbates-depression-anxiety-brazilians-research/">mental health illness symptoms</a>. According to psychologist Alberto Filgueiras, one of the authors, one of the most affected groups includes professionals who are <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/sociedade/coronavirus/ansiedade-depressao-duplicaram-em-um-mes-de-quarentena-no-brasil-sugere-pesquisa-24396239">unable to isolate</a> — which includes much of the press. When it comes to journalists, the IFJ poll also indicated at least half of journalists worldwide are suffering from exacerbated stress and anxiety. For many media workers, however, these symptoms also have to do with a hostile pre-Covid-19 work environment.</p> <p>Earlier this year, Mr. Lanza’s Office held a hearing on “<a href="https://rsf.org/en/news/brazilian-government-avoids-questions-and-iachr-condemns-bolsonaros-charge-press">systemic and institutionalized</a>” press freedom violations taking place in Brazil — representing the first organization to address the declining state of press freedom in the country. According to <a href="https://rsf.org/en/news/brazil-quarterly-analysis-president-bolsonaros-systematic-attempts-reduce-media-silence">Reporters Without Borders</a>, the occasion “constituted a very significant recognition of the dramatic decline in the situation since Bolsonaro became president.” The government, however, offered neither alternatives or concrete answers in response to that.</p> <p>While press freedom continues to decline in Brazil, the president has chosen to attack the press instead of addressing the pandemic that has cost at least <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/05/02/coronavirus-update-brazil-96559-infections-6750-deaths/">6,750 Brazilian lives</a>. More than that, Mr. Bolsonaro has attacked journalists for the act of reporting on the outbreak. On March 27, pointing at journalists who were covering the Alvorada Palace, he told supporters that “these people say I’m wrong and that you should stay at home,” then ironically asked: “<a href="https://twitter.com/RSF_pt/status/1243613077129564162">What are you doing here? Aren’t you afraid of the coronavirus? Go home!</a>”</p> <p>Reporting, Mr. President. We are reporting.

 
Augusta Saraiva

Augusta is a Brazilian journalism student at Northwestern University

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