Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro opened the general debate at the 74th United Nations General Assembly on September 23 with an aggressive, messy tirade against the many ‘threats’ to the country: communism, NGOs, and of course, the international media.
The fires raging in the Amazon have occupied much of the world’s attention in recent weeks, but it is not the only battle occupying the Bolsonaro administration, which appears to view human rights as an inconvenient burden, instead of fundamental guarantees that must be protected.
Many groups defending these rights -- environmentalists, black activists, feminists, the LGBTQ community -- have been targeted by Brazil’s outspoken president and his followers, and the press is no exception.
In his first year in office, Brazil’s right-wing president has gleefully adopted the “fake news” rhetoric favored by many of the world’s authoritarian leaders. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), along with partner organizations in Brazil, has been documenting President Bolsonaro’s onslaught against the press, as he has bullied and blocked individual reporters on Twitter, threatened to withdraw state advertising money from media, lashed out at outlets that report critically on his government and accused the country’s largest-circulation daily newspaper of “lying shamelessly.”
After The Intercept Brasil earlier this year broke a blockbuster story on allegations of improper behavior and potential illegal actions by some of the investigators behind the country’s biggest corruption scandal, including the current Justice Minister, rumors swirled that police planned to open an investigation into the outlet to identify its sources, and Bolsonaro suggested that co-founder and editor Glenn Greenwald could “do jail time.”
The president, his sons -- including a member of Congress and a city council member -- and close allies continue to attack journalists, in public statements and on Twitter, on a near-daily basis. Meanwhile, supporters have shared journalists’ personal information including home addresses and urged others to “pay them a visit,” and uncooperative officials and efforts to roll back freedom of information laws have made it much harder for journalists to access basic information.
South America’s biggest nation was hardly a paradise for the press before the elections: since 2010, 25 Brazilian journalists have been murdered in connection with their work, and CPJ is still investigating an additional 11 cases
The alarm bells in Brazil started last year, during a contentious presidential campaign that involved physical brawls at campaign events and culminated in an attacker stabbing Bolsonaro at a rally just weeks before the election. Brazilian press freedom organization ABRAJI documented more than 150 incidents of threats and attacks against campaign reporters during the 2018 election. These attacks were divided almost evenly between physical violence and online harassment campaigns -- a clear illustration of the reality that, for Brazilian reporters, danger comes from many sides.
South America’s biggest nation was hardly a paradise for the press before the elections: since 2010, 25 Brazilian journalists have been murdered in connection with their work, and CPJ is still investigating an additional 11 cases. The vast majority of cases of journalists killed -- most of them rural reporters from small towns -- have never been solved. For nine straight years, Brazil has appeared on CPJ’s Impunity Index, an annual analysis that ranks states with the worst records of prosecuting the killers of journalists.
The Brazilian justice system has taken some steps in the right direction, with several high-profile convictions in the last few years, but these numbers are unlikely to improve in the near future, as Bolsonaro has made it clear he views the press as a nuisance at best, and at worst, an adversary to be defeated. As incidents of racial abuse and violence against women and the LGBTQ community continue to spike, Brazil’s media has good reason to fear the same.
A free and independent press is the foundation of any healthy democracy -- so it’s easy to see how the free press could become a threat to those like the president’s son and Rio City Council member Carlos Bolsonaro, who recently tweeted that Brazil’s “transformation” would not happen “at the speed we want” through “democratic means.”
Just as the international community has rallied around the indigenous communities and environmental groups leading the defense of the rainforest, we must support the reporters doing their best to keep their fellow citizens informed
The first step of the authoritarian playbook involves sidelining critical voices and taking control of the official narrative, which soon becomes the only narrative. There are already signs of this underway, as the Brazilian government has engaged in disinformation campaigns seeking to blame NGOs, denied scientific statistics and accused critics of trying to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty as international outcry grew in response to the Amazon fires. Meanwhile, one of the first journalists to break the story of the fires in rural Pará state received a wave of threats.
Fortunately, Brazil’s lively, diverse and fierce press continues to fight back, continuing to do vital, critical reporting in the face of these attacks -- but they cannot do it alone. Just as the international community has rallied around the indigenous communities and environmental groups leading the defense of the rainforest, we must support the reporters doing their best to keep their fellow citizens informed amid a cyclone of misinformation and eroding trust.
For decades, Brazil has enjoyed the right to the first word at the UNGA General Debate.
Now, with a leader who spreads misinformation, vilifies reporters and cries “fake news” at any article that isn’t to his liking, we should all be asking: who exactly is he speaking for?