Activists criminalised and continuous delegitimisation of press in Brazil

CSO coalition Pacto pela Democracia published a retrospective of attacks against democracy in Brazil throughout 2019. The report outlines 60 key incidents which, according to the Pacto network, reveal a wider process of democratic deterioration in the country. The list includes several attacks on freedom of expression and association, including retaliation against journalists, public vilification of NGOs and censorship attempts.

In the final months of 2019, the widely reported fires in the Amazon continued to be used as a tool to criminalise NGOs and activists in Brazil. In November 2019, four volunteer firefighters were detained under accusations of deliberately setting fire to an environmental protection area and an NGO had their office raided by security forces.

Further, on several occasions, Brazilian President Bolsonaro vilified civil society organisations, journalists and political opponents. The developments reported in this period also include physical attacks against journalists and media outlets as well as new restrictive laws.


Environmental defenders detained and persecuted

On 26th November 2019, police arrested four volunteer firefighters accused of intentionally setting fire to the Amazon rainforest in the state of Pará. The four defenders are members of the Alter do Chão volunteer fire brigade, which in September 2019 helped battle massive fires raging in protected areas in the region. In a press conference, the police accused the volunteers of setting fires in the forest in order to photograph themselves putting the fires out, sell the images and raise donations from international NGOs. While state police claimed to have videos and recordings which incriminate the defenders, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office stated that their investigation, occurring in parallel, has not pointed to any civil society organisations and requested access to the files.

In the operation, the police also raided the offices of the NGO Projeto Saúde e Alegria (Project Health and Happiness - PSA) which works in the region and has close links to the brigade. The officers seized computers, documents and materials without a specific accusation. “This was a political action attempting to delegitimise NGOs working in the Amazon,” said Caetano Scannavino, one of PSA’s leaders. More than 200 civil society organisations published solidarity statements.

The four defenders were conditionally released on 29th November 2019 but the investigation and case against them is ongoing. Following accusations of politically motivated detentions, the Pará governor replaced the officer leading the investigation. On 28th November 2019, Bolsonaro commented on the incident in a livestream and told his supporters not to donate money to NGOs.

Parliamentary commission to investigate NGO donations

In November 2019, Senators approved the establishment of a parliamentary commission to investigate the causes of the increase in deforestation and fires in the Amazon forest between 1st January 2018 and 27th August 2019. The investigation will also look into public funds provided to civil society organisations working in the Amazon and the use of those resources. Plínio Valério, the senator who proposed the commission, accused NGOs of deviating public funds in September 2019. The commission is composed of 11 regular members and seven alternate members who will have 120 days to investigate.

Indigenous leader’s house ransacked

On 30th November 2019, the house of Munduruku indigenous leader Alessandra Korap in Santarém, Pará state, was invaded and several documents and electronic equipment were stolen. Among the items stolen were a computer, a phone, a tablet, an external hard drive and a television, while personal items were destroyed. Days earlier, Alessandra had been part of a group of leaders who went to Brazil’s capital Brasília to denounce illegal mining and attacks against the Munduruku in the region. As reported by DW Brasil, the leader believes this raid was in retaliation for the public denouncements. According to reports by DW, local organisations have denounced the climate of fear and intimidation in the region.

Military Police invade two MST camps

On 17th December 2019, Brazil’s Military Police (PM) surrounded two camps of the Movimento Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement - MST) in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state, and reportedly intimidated the local population. According to reports, the police entered the Zequinha camp with riot police, dogs and a helicopter. MST published a statement denouncing harassment of those living at the camp, including verbal sexual harassment against women. In the statement, MST also said that police officers entered the Pátria Livre camp to remove the movement’s flag.

Peaceful Assembly

Brazilians took to the streets on Black Awareness Day

Every 20th November 2019, Brazilians celebrate Black Awareness Day in honour of Zumbi, one of the most important quilombola leaders and a pioneer of resistance to slavery in Brazilian history. To mark the day and to call for black people’s rights, demonstrators took to the streets in different cities. In São Paulo, the motto of the 16th Black Awareness March was “life, freedom and future, against black genocide.” Flavio Jorge, a member of the board of the National Coordination of Black Organisations (Conen), stated it was essential to hold demonstrations like these in a context of rising conservatism in the country. “This is the first march we hold during a far-right government. This government – and we knew that – will make life much more difficult for black people”, Jorge said. Major demonstrations also took place in Rio de Janeiro, Florianópolis, Belo Horizonte and Recife.


Journalist physically attacked in a live broadcast

On 7th November 2019, conservative columnist Augusto Nunes slapped Rio-based U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald during a live recording at radio station Jovem Pan. Greenwald is the co-founder of The Intercept and The Intercept Brasil, which has led the reporting series VazaJato claiming that members of Brazil’s justice system abused their authority during Operation Car Wash investigations and trials. On 30th August 2019, Nunes had questioned Greenwald´s work and said that the journalist and his husband, a Brazilian politician, were probably not taking proper care of their two adopted Brazilian children and suggested a family judge should investigate. During the live show in November, Greenwald confronted Nunes about what he had said about his children and called him a coward, resulting in the physical altercation. After getting slapped, Greenwald also attempted to punch Nunes.

Members of the government tweeted support for Nunes's aggression against Greenwald, including two of the President's sons, Federal Deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL/SP) and Councilman Carlos Bolsonaro (PSL/RJ). Several freedom of expression and press organisations condemned the aggression and expressed solidarity with Greenwald. According to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), the aggression "started a wave of attacks on the press via the Internet, such as we have rarely seen in recent years in Brazil".

New law may limit journalistic work during elections

On 8th November 2019, legislation (Law 13.834) that adds “slanderous denunciation with electoral objective” as a criminal offence under Brazil’s electoral code entered into force. The law establishes prison sentences ranging from two to eight years, as well as fines, to anyone who falsely accuses a political candidate with the objective of affecting their campaign. The legislation also makes it illegal to share those accusations. Similar legislation already existed and, according to CPJ’s research, Brazilian authorities have repeatedly used the country’s outdated criminal defamation laws to put pressure on journalists and drain their financial resources in recent years. In August 2019, for instance, two journalists in Rondônia state were convicted under a criminal defamation law for an article reporting that a mayoral candidate had been investigated for corruption.

Natalie Southwick, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s Central and South America Programme Coordinator, condemned the legislation and stated:

“Brazil’s new amendment to its electoral code could hold journalists criminally responsible simply for reporting on allegations of illegal action by political candidates -- information that is in the public interest leading up to next year’s elections.”

In October 2019, the CPJ published their 2019 Global Impunity Index showing that Brazil is among the 13 countries in the world with the highest rates of impunity for crimes against journalists. The international ranking is based on the number of assassinations of journalists without resolution since 2009. Brazil, with 15 cases, sits in 9th place.

Public authorities target news outlets

On 28th October 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shared a video montage on his Twitter account showing himself as a lion being attacked by hyenas, each of which were labelled with the names of leading political and social groups, as well as major national media outlets such as Globo, newspaper Folha de São Paulo and magazine Veja. The Brazilian Supreme Court was also featured as an attacker against Bolsonaro in the video, which generated criticism and led Bolsonaro to issue a public apology to the Court.

On 30th October 2019, Bolsonaro insulted and threatened TV Globo in response to a report mentioning his name in connection with investigations into the murder of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman and activist Marielle Franco in March 2018. Bolsonaro reacted on his social media channels, insisting on his innocence and accusing TV Globo. “Despicable bastards, you are not patriots”, he said. In a livestream, he accused TV Globo of being corrupt and immoral and threatened to block the renewal of its broadcasting licence in 2022. Globo media group issued a statement in response to the accusations saying it did “serious and responsible journalism” and that it broadcast the report based on an official witness’ testimony.

On 28th November 2019, Brazil’s Federal government published a bidding notice for the provision of subscription services for online access to national and international newspapers and magazines. The list of subscriptions requested, which included 19 Brazilian and 5 foreign newspapers, and 8 Brazilian and 2 foreign magazines, excluded Folha de S. Paulo, which is one of the leading newspapers in Brazil. President Bolsonaro had previously threatened to terminate all federal government’s subscriptions to Folha, and the newspaper has been one of the most frequent targets of his attacks on the press since the election campaign. Commenting on this decision, Bolsonaro said that he did not want to read Folha anymore and that he recommended the same to all Brazilians. However, following criticism from freedom of press advocates, the bidding notice was revoked on 6th December 2019.

In December 2019, the mayor of Rio, Marcelo Crivella made a similar move to boycott the Globo group. On 1st December 2019, Crivella posted a video calling newspaper O Globo a “political pamphlet” and saying that the city hall would no longer respond to their requests for information. On 2nd December 2019, the mayor posted another video, this time threatening to sue for “libel, slander and defamation” the two journalists who reported on an investigation led by the Public Prosecutor’s Office into corruption in city hall. On 3rd December 2019, the city hall banned a reporter and a photographer from Globo from participating in a press conference about the New Year's Eve party on Copacabana beach. On 13th December 2019, journalists from the Globo group were again banned from a press conference about the city hall’s health policies. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) criticised this decision announced by Rio’s mayor and argued that this boycott violates freedom of expression and the right of access to information, infringing on the country’s Constitution.

Arson attack on a community radio station in Choró, Ceará

On 3rd December 2019, unidentified assailants burned down the broadcast antenna of Brazilian community radio station Aliança FM in the city of Choró, Ceará state. Marcolino Borges, the founder and editor-in-chief of Aliança FM, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the station received many threats over the years because of its coverage of local news and politics. Borges also stated that he has been in a long-running dispute with Otacio Dantas Filho, a former mayor of Choró who has previously threatened to “end” the radio station and tried to interfere with their broadcasts. Asked by CPJ, Dantas Filho denied any relation with the arson attack on the antenna and said he had never interfered with Alianza FM´s broadcasts. The Secretary of Public Security and Social Defence reported that initial findings indicated that the cables supporting the antenna were cut and then set on fire using a flammable liquid.

Developments in legal cases related to freedom of expression

On 17th December 2019, the trial of the alleged killers of radio journalist Valério Luiz de Oliveira was postponed because the judge withdrew, claiming a lack of resources to proceed. Oliveira was killed in 2012 outside the offices of Radio Jornal in Goiânia, Goiás state. Five men were charged with the murder in 2013, but their trial has been delayed multiple times. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged Brazilian authorities to resume the legal proceedings quickly and ensure that justice is served without further delays.

On 6th January 2020, journalist Felipe Oliveira was acquitted on charges of promotion of terrorism. Oliveira had been accused of encouraging Brazilian supporters of the group Islamic State (ISIS) after he joined online forums frequented by ISIS sympathisers and infiltrated their groups. He met and exchanged messages with members of a radical group, whose recruitment process and activities he exposed in reports published byBrazilian newspapers and tv programmes. The judge concluded that Oliveira’s conversations with members of the group had the objective of verifying information for journalistic purposes and that there was no evidence that he had encouraged terrorist activities.