Jair Bolsonaro’s first 100 days in office demonstrate Brazilian president’s disregard for pluralism


On 10th April 2019, Jair Bolsonaro completed his first 100 days in office. In these three months, the new government has repeatedly attacked democratic institutions and demonstrated a disregard for the diverse voices of a plural democratic society. Bolsonaro’s government has continuously used executive power to circumvent and reduce citizen participation in policy formation. Human rights organisation Conectas lists ten examples that demonstrate this situation. These include measures to reduce public administration transparency, barriers to the monitoring of torture and changes to the country’s diplomatic approach.

On his second working day, Jair Bolsonaro issued  Provisional Measure 870/2019 whose content suggests an attempt to tighten control over civil society. A controversial point granted jurisdiction for the Secretariat of Government to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and keep track of activities and actions by international organs and non-governmental organisations within national territory” (Art. 5, Clause II). The measure also shifted authority over indigenous land demarcations from FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, to the Ministry of Agriculture, Ranching and Supply.

According to Conectas, this change would give the Secretariat of Government a function unprecedented in Brazil’s democratic period. While the Secretariat has traditionally had a role of communication and dialogue between civil society and the government, it has never been able to monitor the activity and actions of these organisations. Allowing government interference in more than 800 thousand Brazilian NGOs, such a measure received significant criticism at a national and international level.

The Brazilian Association of NGOs issued a  statement questioning the constitutionality and legitimacy of this provisional measure, highlighting existing legislation regulating civil society in the country. On April 23rd 2019, civil society coalition Pacto Pela Democracia launched the campaign Sociedade Livre (Free Society) to mobilise the population and put pressure on public powers to reverse Article 5, Clause II of the provisional measure. Pacto pela Democracia is a coalition of over 100 social organisations, who define themselves as a platform for joint action to defend and revitalize democracy in the country. Finally, in May 2019, the article related to control of NGOs was removed from the provisional measure.

On 11th April 2019, an executive order (Decree number 9.759/2019) signed by Bolsonaro abolished at least 50 civil society participation councils without any consultation or public debate. Among the participatory bodies extinguished are councils dedicated to minority, labour and children’s rights, including the National Environment Council, the National Council of People with Disabilities, National Council for the Promotion of LGBT Rights, National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour, and National Commission for the Eradication of Child Labour.

Created to promote dialogue between civil society and the government, the shutdown of these councils restricts space to listen to public demands and limits the diversity of ideas and visions, a vital aspect of democracy. Civil society organisations issued a  public statement rejecting this measure and stating that they will continue to pool efforts to guarantee the continuity of social participation mechanisms that are a constitutional victory for Brazilian society as a whole.

Peaceful Assembly

On 12th March 2019, two former police officers were arrested for the murder of Rio de Janeiro councilor Marielle Franco. Her assassination took place on 14th March 2018 as reported by the CIVICUS Monitor. Marking the anniversary, protests took place in more than 25 Brazilian cities and other 15 cities around the world. Activists took to the streets to ask “Who killed Marielle? Who ordered her murder?”.

In a separate incident, government announcement of cuts to the public budget for universities and federal educational institutions was met with outcry and demonstrations across the country. In April, Bolsonaro declared that the Ministry of Education was considering cutting investment for the faculties of philosophy and sociology, with the objective "to focus on areas that generate an immediate return to the taxpayer, such as veterinary, engineering and medicine." While the measure was announced as part of a series of fiscal restriction measures, several civil society organisations denounced this move as ideologically-motivated persecution against human sciences that promote critical thinking in schools and universities. This perception was enhanced when the Minister of Education said resources would be cut from universities promoting "mayhem" on campus, while singling out three universities.

Following public outcry, government announced that budget restrictions would be extended for all federal universities. Afterward, further freezes were announced, this time to higher education scholarship schemes and to federal schools and institutions' budget. University students associations, workers, and professors in Brazil have called for a general strike on 15th of May. The Minister of Education is scheduled to explain the cuts before Congress on the same day.

Intimidation of activists

From 24th to 26th April 2019 around 4,500 representatives of indigenous communities gathered in Brazil’s capital for this year's Free Land Encampment, an annual gathering organised by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). Even before the Encampment kicked off, Brazil's Ministry of Justice issued an ordinance authorising the presence of the National Guard at the Esplanade of Ministries, where the assembly was to be held. The move was viewed by APIB as an attempt to intimidate activists, reinforcing an overall climate of repression against indigenous peoples. 

This year's assembly took place in a context of increasing reports of invasions happening in indigenous lands across Brazil since the beginning of the year, and was considered particularly important because of recent legislative and judicial attacks on indigenous people's land rights. The decision to shift jurisdiction over indigenous land demarcation to the Ministry of Agriculture, in particular, triggered objections from indigenous and rights groups, who claim that this change places indigenous land rights at risk because this Ministry is dominated by agribusiness groups who have long desired access to indigenous reserves. Provisional Measure 870, previously discussed, also moved FUNAI from under the Ministry of Justice to the new Ministry of Human Rights, Family and Women. Rights groups also criticised this change as they consider the new ministry as politically weak. 

On 9th May 2019, the Congress Commission responsible for analysing MP 870 approved the rapporteur's recommendation to maintain FUNAI under the Ministry of Justice and that the agency continues to have jurisdiction over land demarcation. This, along with the successful and peaceful mobilisation of the Free Land Encampment, were considered wins in the first battle in President Bolsonaro’s war on indigenous peoples.


Access to information

On 24th January 2019, through Decree 9.690, the federal government changed the rules of the Access to Information Act, expanding the opportunities for civil servants to classify public information as confidential and hampering public administration transparency. Previously, only the President, Vice-President, Ministers and Commanders of the Armed Forces had permission to attribute “top secret” status to public data. With this Decree, lower ranking staff, including local authorities, foundations, public companies and semi-public corporations gained power to allocate this classification of secrecy.

Over 20 civil society organisations, including Transparency Brazil, Article 19, Abraji (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism) and several specialists who work in the field of transparency issued a public statement criticising the government’s decision. In the statement, they said that “the changes endanger the spirit of the Access to Information Act, which considers confidentiality to be exceptional in nature and increases control and the political cost of confidentiality classification.” They also criticised the lack of public debate in arriving at this decision and drew attention to the government’s move away from policies that promote transparency and fight corruption.

Following widespread criticism, on 27th February 2019 the government revoked the decree in what is considered a great triumph of the mobilisation of civil society.

Attacks to the press

Two Brazilian journalists received death threats through social networks after publishing reports critical of the country's past and present Armed Forces, reported the Knight Center. On 4th April 2019, reporter Juliana Dal Piva received a death threat through her social networks. The message which said "You will die", came from a profile that used a pseudonym. Allegedly, the threat was motivated by an article Dal Piva wrote for newspaper O Globo, criticising a film documentary showing a favourable perspective of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Three days later, on 7th April 2019, TV Globo reporter Carlos de Lannoy received a threat hours after presenting a report about two recent deaths at roadblocks carried out by the Brazilian Army in Rio de Janeiro. Received on his Instagram profile, the threat said "You messed with the army, you signed your sentence! Your family will pay!" In this case, the user who had left the message was identified as a former candidate to local council in the municipality of Nísia Floresta, Rio Grande do Norte, in northeastern Brazil. Following repercussion, the threatening comment was deleted by the user, who issued an apology.

Three bills underway in Congress propose to toughen the criminal treatment of perpetrators of violence against journalists and press professionals. On 22nd February 2019, federal deputy Júnior Bozzella for the State of São Paulo presented Bill 1.052/2019 that proposes "to classify as heinous the crime committed against the life, security and physical integrity of the press professionals in the function of broadcaster and journalist in the exercise of their function.” Bozzella is a federal deputy and for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Bolsonaro's party. The proposal was merged with Bill 7107/2014, by Federal Deputy Domingos Sávio, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) of Minas Gerais, which deals with the same subject.

On 28th March 2019, federal deputy Roberto Pessoa of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) of the State of Ceará presented Bill 1.838/2019, in the Chamber of Deputies. The bill intends to change the Law of Heinous Crimes (Law 8.072/1990) to classify "as heinous the crime committed against the life, security and physical integrity of the journalist and press professional in the exercise of his activity.” As reported by Article 19, in 2017 Ceará was the state with the highest number of serious violations to press professionals. Deputy Pessoa said that “The bill protects [journalists] because whoever wants to kill will know that it is a heinous crime, with a greater penalty. It is a project in defence of democracy". In the Senate, Acir Gurgacz of the Democratic Labour Party presented the Bill 329/2016 with the same proposal. Gurgacz also proposed to "insert in the list of heinous crimes the homicide committed against a journalist, because of his profession".

Among the types of crimes classified as heinous in Brazil are homicide, robbery resulting in death, rape and feminicide. The law determines harsher punishments for those who carry out this type of crime, in addition to prohibiting the possibility of amnesty, grace, pardon or bail. Emmanuel Colombié, regional director for Latin America of Reporters Without Borders, interviewed by the Knight Centre, said the proposals to make violence against journalists a heinous crime are "interesting," but they are isolated initiatives that do not solve the problem:

"It is important to be clear that the security of communicators and, ultimately, the exercise of freedom of expression, will not be guaranteed just by punishing those involved in crimes. A strategy that privileges prevention more than punishment is very important. Both things must go together. The problem of impunity has to be seen in a more comprehensive picture. In Brazil, there is a lack of a real risk prevention policy."

On 7th May 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a new decree that allows a number of professional categories, including journalists who cover crime, to carry firearms in public. Lawyers, traffic police officers and “residents of rural areas” were also included in the decree. This initiative comes four months after another one signed on 15th January that relaxed Brazil’s gun ownership laws. Reporters Without Borders' Colombié has criticised this decision: it “sets a dangerous precedent and does nothing to resolve the security problems that many Brazilian journalists face”.