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Bolsonaro says the Supreme Court is out to get him. He’s not wrong

. May 28, 2020
From left to right: Senate President Davi Alcolumbre, President Jair Bolsonaro, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Dias Toffoli. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR From left to right: Senate President Davi Alcolumbre, President Jair Bolsonaro, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Dias Toffoli. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

With rising political tension, institutional deadlock, and regular Federal Police operations making the headlines, today’s Brazil is reminiscent of 2015. Just like five years ago, when Operation Car Wash began exposing the ins and outs of corruption at the federal level, this battle between political stakeholders will have no death blow in store for either side. Instead, it is a war of attrition, as opposing forces slowly wear each other down. But things were taken up a notch on Wednesday morning, as the Supreme Court launched an operation to crack down on an alleged fake news ring operating to benefit far-right President Jair Bolsonaro — possibly under his administration’s auspices.

Federal marshals paid a visit to bloggers, digital influences, and businessmen — seizing computers and cell phones that could prove their connection to an underground misinformation structure operating to further radicalize Brazil’s already toxic political environment. Moreover, eight members of Congress with close ties to the president will be questioned.

</p> <p>Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who presides over the probe, also ordered the disclosure of the tax and banking records of all 17 suspects for the period between July 2018 and April 2020 —&nbsp;which encompasses the 2018 campaign and the first 16 months of the Bolsonaro administration.</p> <p>The move set off alarms within the Bolsonaro administration, as it could uncover damaging evidence against his 2018 campaign with the potential of costing him his office.&nbsp;</p> <p>As we explained on May 23, there are <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/05/23/way-oust-bolsonaro-not-impeachment-electoral-court/">two lawsuits pending against Mr. Bolsonaro</a> in the Superior Electoral Court, both regarding a network of businesses that illegally hired social media companies to send hundreds of millions of messages to voters, attacking Mr. Bolsonaro’s rivals, during the 2018 campaign. If a connection between the campaign committee and the illegal scheme is proven, the election could be voided —&nbsp;with both Jair Bolsonaro and his vice president, Hamilton Mourão, being ousted.</p> <p>The targets of the operation reacted with their characteristic vitriol and martyrdom. Education Minister <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/02/06/impeachment-request-against-brazil-education-minister/">Abraham Weintraub</a> compared the operation to Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany. Former Congressman Roberto Jefferson, who told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> Mr. Bolsonaro should <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/05/11/bolsonaro-new-ally-jefferson-must-have-a-military-coup/">lead a military coup and purge his detractors</a>, compared the Supreme Court to Hitler&#8217;s para-judicial People&#8217;s Court.</p> <h2>The fake news inquiry</h2> <p>Godwin&#8217;s Law aside, the Bolsonaro camp <em>does </em>have reason to be disgruntled and claim the probe is politically motivated, despite mounting evidence to indicate wrongdoing.</p> <p>It is clear by now that spreading false information is an integral part of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s modus operandi. A May 8 count by fact-checking agency Aos Fatos, a partner organization of <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, shows that Mr. Bolsonaro has made <a href="https://www.aosfatos.org/noticias/bolsonaro-chega-1000-declaracoes-falsas-ou-distorcidas-com-492-dias-de-mandato/">at least 1,000 false or misleading statements</a> over just 492 days in office — over two per day. The Supreme Court and its justices have been on the receiving end of many of his attacks. The president&#8217;s insistence on spreading misinformation has even forced social media app Instagram to <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/05/12/instagram-labels-bolsonaro-covid-19-post-as-fake-news/">censor some of his posts</a> — which says a lot, given Silicon Valley companies&#8217; unwillingness to fact-check content.</p> <p>However, the Supreme Court&#8217;s fake news probe is highly problematic. It was <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2019/04/16/jair-bolsonaro-pension-reform-bill-fails-first-test/">opened in March 2019 by Chief Justice Dias Toffoli</a> as a way to shield the court from abuse on Twitter, often delivered by social media bots. However, the investigation was quickly used as justification to censor a story by online magazine Crusoé, linking Mr. Toffoli to construction firm Odebrecht.</p> <p>&#8220;The very nature of his inquiry goes against the Supreme Court&#8217;s own precedents, according to which it is up to law enforcement and prosecutors to conduct investigations,&#8221; says Roberto Livianu, a prosecutor and Ph.D. in criminal law.</p> <p>At the time, the move sparked generalized outrage, with people from both the left and the right claiming the Supreme Court was overstepping its bounds and acting as judge, juror, and executioner — the court launched the investigation, is now conducting the probe, and will be responsible for issuing the verdicts. However, with the justice&#8217;s guns pointed at the divisive and embattled President Bolsonaro, outrage over the investigation has become one-sided.</p> <h2>Bending rules for the &#8216;greater good&#8217;</h2> <p>This is yet another throwback to 2015 and the rise of Operation Car Wash. Arguably the biggest anti-corruption probe in the world, it broke with a tacit non-aggression pact between the Federal Prosecution Office, the Supreme Court, and the political class. Until then, the upper echelons of power — both political and economic —&nbsp;were kept from facing the consequences of their misdeeds. Operation Car Wash ended that sense of impunity, and for the first time, Brazilians saw billionaires in handcuffs and politicians doing time in jail. Not even the country&#8217;s most popular leader, center-left former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, escaped.</p> <p>However, throughout its heyday, Operation Car Wash broke the rules of due process at several points along the way. As The Intercept <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/06/12/intercept-car-wash-leaks-moro/">revealed last year</a>, the investigation&#8217;s lead judge, Sergio Moro, quarterbacked many of the prosecution&#8217;s moves. He convicted Lula of corruption and money laundering —&nbsp;helping to remove him from the 2018 election — and then joined the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/04/24/could-sergio-moro-bring-down-second-president/">cabinet of his biggest adversary</a>.</p> <p>More than being anti-Lula, Operation Car Wash members acted as anti-corruption zealots, believing that their moral high-ground entitled them to bend the rules when necessary to prove their theories. The belief — a correct one, by all means — was that corruption is a force that is eroding and threatening the very fabric of democracy.</p> <p>That is the same thought of those who now support the crackdown on Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s alleged fake news ring. Misinformation is proven to be a threat to democracy and a powerful tool in the hands of authoritarian leaders, leading many Brazilians to turn a blind eye to the Supreme Court&#8217;s anti-constitutional behavior.</p> <p>The case exposes a duality we have in Brazil, as said by editor-in-chief Gustavo Ribeiro to <a href="https://time.com/5840854/sergio-moro-brazil-interview/">Time magazine</a>: &#8220;Either no wrongdoing is ever punished or we have law enforcement and judges bulldozing due process and bending the rules in order to &#8216;do the right thing.'&#8221;

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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