Louie Parker | Latin America Fellow
When Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil in December 2018, few thought his administration would be hailed as a poster child for liberal democratic norms. Throughout the campaign, there were countless intimations that a Bolsonaro-led government was not only a break from political orthodoxy, but rather a leap into the unknown with regard to civil liberties.
Even so, few could have predicted his fractious relationship with the media during the campaign would degenerate so severely once becoming President.
Drugs, violent crime and historical dictatorships have never made Brazil a safe place to report in. However, Bolsonaro’s presidency has seen press freedoms incrementally eroded to historically low levels. According to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Brazil is ranked 105th in the world for freedom of the press. Moreover, attacks against media outlets and journalists rose 54 per cent in 2019.
In January, American journalist Glenn Greenwald was charged with cybercrimes by Brazilian federal prosecutors, in what is a ‘crossing the Rubicon’ moment for press freedom in the country. The charges relate to Greenwald’s publishing of cellphone messages showing political bias and collusion between prosecutors and the judge in the wide-ranging corruption investigation Operation Car Wash. This judge, Sèrgio Moro, was later appointed as Justice Minister by Bolsonaro. Being implicated in a corruption scandal is a stark contradiction of the platform Bolsonaro campaigned on, whether sincerely or otherwise. He railed against what he argued was the establishment and cronyism of former Presidents Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff, and Michel Temer; declaring the need to “break that system altogether." Now devoid of credibility in fighting corruption, Bolsonaro’s governing platform looks less substantive yet more concerning. He has a penchant for reviving culture-war issues such as gay marriage and drug use, coupled with an appreciation of Brazil’s historical dictatorships. Saying during the election, “either they go overseas, or they go to jail,” President Bolsonaro has purged the public service of hundreds of government officials and hinted at purging the country of his leftist opponents. Bolsonaro is acutely aware of the dangers of Greenwald’s reporting. Even before the cybercrimes charges, the Brazilian President hinted that Greenwald should face jail time for his exposè on Operation Car Wash. Greenwald also appeared to be occupying real-estate in the President’s head, with Bolsonaro labelling him a “trickster” for being in a same-sex relationship and having adopted children with his partner David Miranda, a Congressman from an opposition party.
President Bolsonaro’s rebukes are not limited to Greenwald and his partner. Previously, he had smeared a reporter investigating a corruption scandal involving his son, by falsely citing audio that he claimed proved the reporter’s intention to overthrow the government. He also repeated a debunked allegation that a female reporter offered sexual favours in exchange for information critical of the President. Since Greenwald’s exposè, both he and Miranda received death threats containing personal, non-public data only available to the state. He was also assaulted on a pro-Government radio show and, according to Greenwald, a federal agency initiated investigations into both his and Miranda’s personal finances. One was stopped and ruled by the Supreme Court to be retaliatory, while the other was initiated two days after the exposè began. The result of this is that Greenwald and Miranda require armed guards when leaving their house.
The charges against Greenwald were dismissed on 6 February, after a judge invoked a Supreme Court ruling that any further investigation into him would be unjust. This was due to the political interference that occurred in the investigation from the outset. However, the case’s dismissal solely on procedural grounds highlights the need for more robust standards and legal safeguards for journalists.
Attacks on the press are by no means a new phenomenon. Brazil reflects a global trend of hostility amongst democratic leaders toward journalists and the media. Most notably, American President Donald Trump has called the media “scum” and the “enemy of the people.” However, the Greenwald case is especially alarming as it involves the targeted intimidation of an individual journalist through taunts and criminal charges. A similar case for comparison would be that of Maria Ressa, a critic of the Philippines government who was arrested and charged with “cyber libel” crimes in February 2019.
Continued unabated, this proclivity for muzzling dissent will have a deleterious impact on transparency and democratic rights in Brazil. Indeed, the blurred lines between the judiciary and the executive under Bolsonaro highlights the importance of unfettered journalism as a guardrail against governmental impropriety.
By keeping journalists and media personalities on a tight leash, the government will undermine the media’s ability to keep government overreach in check. This makes a return to the autocratic military rule of previous decades a real possibility. Moreover, the intimidation inherent in these actions will result in a culture of self-censorship, as other reporters are deterred from investigating various other examples of government malpractice.
Louie Parker is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.