Proposals to toughen National Security Law met with protest

. Jun 26, 2020
A controversial proposition in Congress could see changes to Brazil's heavily criticized National Security Law Anti-Bolsonaro protester could be indicted under the National Security Law. Photo: Andre MA/Shutterstock

Senator Angelo Coronel’s anti-fake news bill managed a rare feat in today’s Brazil, uniting both the left and right of the political spectrum … in opposition. He wanted to force users to send tech companies proof of identity to access social media platforms, which would enhance the risks to people’s personal information. His efforts to create what activists called “the worst internet speech law on the planet” was clobbered in the Senate — and the matter was not put to a vote. But that doesn’t mean threats to free expression are gone from the Brazilian Congress.

Congressman José Medeiros, from the Center-West state of Mato Grosso do Sul, wants harsh penalties for people found guilty of threatening the lives of government leaders by using the press or social media.

Mr. Medeiros proposes changes to Brazil&#8217;s National Security Law, establishing 4-to-12-year jail sentences for people who target the heads of congressional houses, Supreme Court justices, and the president — of whom Mr. Medeiros is a staunch supporter.</p> <p>The current <a href="">National Security Law</a> came to be in 1983, but the legal device took many forms prior to that. Authoritarian governments in Brazil&#8217;s history have resorted to using its repressive provisions using the &#8220;preservation of political order&#8221; as an excuse. Its first version came in 1935, under dictator Getulio Vargas, who used it to censor, imprison, and kill detractors. One <a href=";pg=PT452&amp;lpg=PT452&amp;dq=castello+lira+neto+lei+de+seguran%C3%A7a+nacional&amp;source=bl&amp;ots=CVOiknKRbq&amp;sig=ACfU3U2RqPGt9hYadmRzKTHntmlcELgjKA&amp;hl=en&amp;sa=X&amp;ved=2ahUKEwiDwNzByJ3qAhUALLkGHYz2AVcQ6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&amp;q=castello%20lira%20neto%20lei%20de%20seguran%C3%A7a%20nacional&amp;f=false">editorial</a> of 1967, written when the law was revived, explains its core point: &#8220;It is the principle of internal warfare, that is, stating that threats to the nation&#8217;s welfare are not from outside, but come from our people&#8217;s behavior.&#8221;</p> <p>That could sum up, in a nutshell, what Mr. Medeiros thinks. &#8220;The president bothers his opponents a lot, and since the election —&nbsp;when he was the victim of attempted murder. But now he suffers, on a daily basis, with articles in mainstream newspapers accusing him of crimes he never committed. They attempt to tarnish his honor, and that of his family, with all sorts of threats,&#8221; said the congressman.</p> <p>Mr. Medeiros, however, seems to be less concerned with the safety of Supreme Court justices who are being attacked by pro-Bolsonaro activists. One threat went as far as saying that justices&#8217; daughters should be &#8220;raped&#8221; and &#8220;murdered.&#8221;</p> <h2>Gag order not exclusive to the far-right</h2> <p>Strengthening the National Security Law would create a dangerous loophole that could allow the government to crack down on dissidents and become more authoritarian. We have already started to see some examples of how dangerous it can get.</p> <p>Heavily criticized for its lack of transparency with Covid-19 data in the country, the Health Ministry forced public servants to sign non-disclosure agreements in an attempt to prevent leaks. The documents established that breaches would be framed as crimes against national security and the public order. That is, if Mr. Medeiros&#8217; proposal were to pass, whistleblowing could be punished by up to 12 years in jail.</p> <p>Prior to that, Justice Minister André Mendonça said he would launch an investigation against a cartoonist who drew Mr. Bolsonaro painting a swastika over a hospital sign — as well as the blogger who published it. The cartoon was meant to criticize the president for asking supporters to <a href="">invade hospitals and film empty beds</a>, as an attempt to “prove” the state government had been inflating coronavirus death tallies. In response to the government&#8217;s move, hundreds of websites republished the cartoon —&nbsp;as one would expect.</p> <p>But, in fairness, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s supporters are by no means the only ones resorting to a law from the dictatorship in the hopes of wounding the opposing camp.</p> <p>In April, the Supreme Court opened an investigation into possible crimes, under the National Security Law, committed by supporters of the president. It has become the norm for far-right protests to have people calling for a return of the dictatorship and the shutdown of democratic institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court. Based on the law, the court allowed extremist activists to be arrested earlier this month.</p> <h2>National Security Law: from taboo to mainstream</h2> <p>Until 2020, the National Security Law was taboo in Brazilian politics. Its authoritarian heritage refrained governments from using it —&nbsp;with a few notable exceptions. In 2000, the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government resorted to the legislation and arrested nine landless workers for staging a series of occupations of public buildings. At the time, the use of the law was far from a consensus in Brasilia, even among members of the administration.&nbsp;</p> <p>Six years later, the government of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would have its shot of using the law —&nbsp;again directed at landless workers. The administration filed a lawsuit against 116 activists for having vandalized parts of the Congress building in Brasilia. The leader of the protest spent 40 days in prison.</p> <p>The last time the law had been evoked was in 2018, after then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed on the campaign trail.</p> <p>Now, all sides of the spectrum are using the National Security Law as part of their arsenal. And the problem is that there is no safe way to calibrate legislation that punishes speech against political leaders — it would always remain an instrument too tempting for anti-democratic actors.&nbsp;</p> <p>The bottom line is: Brazil would be better off without it.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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