Freedom of expression sees historic dip in Brazil

. Oct 21, 2020
freedom of expression Riot police ready to contain a pro-democracy protest in São Paulo (June 2020). Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

In the first year of the Jair Bolsonaro government, Brazil recorded its biggest setback in freedom of expression, according to a recent report published by international human rights NGO Article 19. Dedicating an entire chapter to the situation in Brazil, the NGO highlights threats against environmentalist and indigenous activists, and warns that the country’s “authoritarian leaders” have created an elevated risk to public health during the coronavirus crisis.

</p> <p>Article 19&#8217;s <a href="">Global Expression Report</a> analyzes the current state of freedom of speech issues in 161 countries, measuring each one by its &#8220;GxR&#8221; metric, which evaluates variables such as government censorship efforts, harassment of journalists, freedom of political assembly, among others. In what was deemed a &#8220;steep and accelerated decline,&#8221; Brazil&#8217;s score fell 18 points in a single year and has been cut in half since 2016.</p> <p>In the overall ranking, Brazil has fallen into Article 19&#8217;s &#8220;Restricted&#8221; category, sitting in 94th position out of 161 nations. Only Venezuela posted a lower score in South America.</p> <p>In its in-depth analysis of Brazil, researchers point out that in January 2019 — the same month Jair Bolsonaro took office as president — the government made drastic changes to two laws: one to allow the control of civic spaces, and another that allowed more public officials to classify documents for up to 50 years. Both provisions were later revoked after an intense backlash from civil society.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Environmentalists and indigenous people under threat</h2> <p>Singled out as among the worst groups affected by Brazil&#8217;s freedom of expression backslide are environmentalist activists and the country&#8217;s indigenous population. &#8220;Exploitation [of natural resources has become a key part of the economic model of Brazil’s new President Bolsonaro: those who oppose it are painted as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘anti-developmental,’&#8221; states the report.</p> <p>Indeed, throughout the Bolsonaro government, the enforcement of environmental legislation has been weakened considerably, which has coincided with a <a href="">significant increase in deforestation in the Amazon</a>. Furthermore, Article 19 highlight the assassination of indigenous leaders, such as <a href="">Paulo Paulino Guajajara</a>, a member of the Guardians of the Forest resistance group who was killed in November 2019.</p> <p>&#8220;Illegal loggers ambushed him and another member of the Guajajara, both members of the Guardians of the Forest,&#8221; reads the report. A total of 42 members of the Guajajara tribe were murdered by loggers between 2000 and 2018.</p> <h2>Misinformation and attacks during the pandemic</h2> <p>Though the Global Expression Report takes its measurements from 2019, researchers issued a warning for increased restrictions on freedom of expression during this year&#8217;s Covid-19 pandemic. The authors mention the risk of <a href="">misinformation</a>, giving the example of posts made by President Bolsonaro on Twitter, which were later deleted by the platform due to containing false information related to the pandemic. &#8220;The 2020 pandemic has made Brazil an example in the extreme of how authoritarian leaders and restrictions on freedom of expression, combined with disinformation, represent a high risk for public health.&#8221;</p> <p>Even before the pandemic, however, researchers point out that misinformation and the de-legitimization of the press have sparked a new wave of defamatory campaigns against the media, adding that women journalists were the primary targets of these attacks.</p> <h2>Global trend</h2> <p>While Brazil suffered the largest drop in freedom of expression of any country in the study, global levels reached their lowest level in 2019. According to the results, around 3.9 billion people — 51 percent of the world&#8217;s population — live in countries experiencing a &#8220;freedom of expression crisis.&#8221; This was hoisted by growing restrictions in China, India, Turkey, Russia, Bangladesh, and Iran, and by worrying drops in Brazil, the U.S., Hungary, and Tanzania.</p> <p>Among the main recommendations made by Article 19 to revert this negative trend is galvanizing press freedoms. &#8220;In Brazil and the world, it is necessary to guarantee a safe work environment for journalists, free from attacks on civil society organizations and in which the population does not face obstacles to access public information and an internet that is free from human rights violations,&#8221; said Denise Dourado Dora, executive director of Article 19.

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Renato Alves

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

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