Pandemic in Brazil aggravates democratic backslide

Pandemic in Brazil aggravates democratic backslide
Protester with Black Lives Matter sign at anti-racism rally. Rio de Janeiro, 5 June 2020. (Photo by Buda Mendes via Getty).

Peaceful Assembly

Even as coronavirus cases increased in Brazil, President Bolsonaro and government authorities encouraged and attended pro-government demonstrations between April and July 2020.In many cases, protests by government supporters turned anti-democratic, with signs calling for a military coup, the closure of the National Congress and the dissolution of the Federal Supreme Court. Quarantine policies adopted by local governments in the context of COVID-19 were also the target of protests by groups of government supporters. On 20th April 2020, for instance, Bolsonaro joined a protest in Brasilia against stay-at-home orders, claiming that lockdown measures imposed by some state governors were dictatorial.

Pro-democratic and anti-racism protests also took place in many cities at the beginning of June 2020. Following weeks of protests by right-wing groups calling for the closing of democratic institutions, in May 2020 social movements began organising pro-democracy manifestos such as Juntos, Basta! and Somos 70%. An anti-fascism march on 31st May 2020 took place in 15 cities, mobilised by organised fans of several Brazilian football clubs.In São Paulo, a counter-protest by government supporters was convened for the same day and venue, generating tension and clashes. Social media videos show pro-government protesters insulting and threatening pro-democracy demonstrators and wearing symbols from extremist groups. The police used tear gas and pepper spray against anti-fascist demonstrators, allegedly after a fight erupted between the two groups of protesters.

On the same day, a peaceful anti-racism protest in Rio de Janeiro was dispersed by the police using tear gas and rubber bullets. The Vidas Negras Importam (Black Lives Matter) demonstration denounced police violence against Brazil’s Black population and called for an end to police operations in favelas. At least one person was detained; video images show police officers pointing a rifle at the unarmed demonstrator during his detention, which was later recognised by authorities as a breach of protocol.

A week later, on 7th June 2020, thousands of people joined peaceful pro-democracy and anti-racism protests which took place in at least 13 cities. In Rio, demonstrators carried signs with the names of Black people killed by police brutality and chanted “how many more have to die for this war to end?”. In São Paulo, the police again used tear gas to disperse protesters at the end of a pro-democracy rally. In Belém do Pará, over a hundred people were detained as they tried to join an anti-racism and pro-democracy rally – which was prevented from taking place by police intervention. Authorities alleged the detentions were meant to prevent large gatherings and violent acts, even though the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions had already been lifted.

In June 2020, human rights groups organised peaceful interventions to denounce the scale of the COVID-19 crisis in Brazil. In Brasilia, protesters put up 1,000 crosses paying tribute to COVID-19 victims on the lawn in front of key government buildings, calling out Bolsonaro for his denials of the pandemic’s gravity. In Rio de Janeiro, government supporters insulted and heckled members of a civil society organisation putting together a similar intervention at Copacabana beach. As an elderly man began to hastily push down the crosses representing COVID-19 victims, a passerby intervened to put the signs back up, calling for respect for protesters and victims such as his own son.

In a separate development, on 1st and 25th July 2020, food delivery workers organised national strike days to denounce the precariousness in the sector and to demand better working conditions. Hundreds of workers joined demonstrations on their bikes and motorcycles while supporters called on the general public to refrain from ordering on food delivery apps on both days.

Positive court ruling

On 13th August 2020, 18 young people were acquitted by a court in São Paulo in a case related to their participation in an anti-government protest in 2016. The incident gained notoriety at the time after it became known that a police officer had infiltrated protesters’ messaging groups. The young people were detained before they could reach the protest; the police claimed material found in their possession, such as first aid kits, were evidence that they had meant to engage in criminal conduct.


Monitoring of activists and public servants

As pro-democracy movements organised rallies in June 2020, politicians linked to right-wing sectors vilified protesters and activists identifying as anti-fascists. On 1st June 2020, legislator Daniel Silveira introduced a bill in the Chamber of Deputies to classify “Antifa” as a terrorist organisation under Brazil’s anti-terrorism law. Silveira is a federal deputy with close links to government. Days later, Bolsonaro said he regretted that anti-fascist groups were not juridically treated as terrorist groups.

On 4th June 2020, news outlets reported on a leaked dossier containing data on about a thousand people suspected of being associated with antifa groups. The document, compiled by pro-Bolsonaro state legislator Douglas Garcia, contained information such as believed political affiliation, place of work, social networks and private data including phone numbers and addresses of the alleged activists. Some of the people listed reported being threatened and harassed after their information was leaked. On 10th August 2020, a São Paulo court ordered Garcia to pay BRL 20,000 in damages to a woman whose personal information was exposed in the document.

In a similar case, at the end of July 2020 Brazilian media reported that a branch of the Justice Ministry had acted to identify almost 600 public servants believed to be members of antifascist groups. The document had information on law enforcement officers who expressed support for “anti-fascist police” movements, as well as on three university professors. According to news outlets, the list was sent to several government departments. Brazil’s Public Prosecutors’ Office opened an investigation into the case while opposition party Rede filed a complaint with the Supreme Court, stating that the Ministry had used the state apparatus to pursue political and ideological persecution. On 20th August 2020, the Supreme Court ruled to ban any government initiative to monitor political activities of public servants or citizens when there is no suspected involvement in criminal activity.

Two Yanomami killed by illegal goldminers

In June 2020, two Yanomami men of the Xaruma community were killed by illegal goldminers in the Parima region, Roraima state in northern Brazil. The Indigenous Hutukara Yanomami Association called for a rigorous investigation, stating that this crime could bring about a larger scale conflict. A similar clash in 1993 prompted a cycle of violence that ended in the Haximu massacre, in which 16 Yanomami were killed.

In addition, the transit of illegal goldminers between the Indigenous land and nearby towns has exposed Yanomami communities to COVID-19. Yanomami organisations launched a campaign Miners Out, Covid Out to put pressure on government to take urgent measures to remove miners on Yanomami land. On 17th June 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) adopted Precautionary Measure No. 563-20 granted to the Yanomami and Ye'kwana peoples of Brazil. The Commission requested that Brazil protect the Indigenous communities from the ongoing, heightened risk posed by COVID-19, upholding their rights to health, life and personal integrity by taking steps to prevent the further spread of the virus – including from trespassing miners – and by providing appropriate healthcare. These are the first international protective measures addressing the risks posed to Indigenous peoples by the pandemic.

Further violence and restriction of Indigenous peoples

In a letter sent on 9th April 2020, the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Brazil's Indigenous Peoples’ Articulation – APIB) requested the support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in demanding a response from the Brazilian government to the escalating violence against the Guajajara peoples in the northern state of Maranhão. As previously reported on the Monitor, a Guajajara defender, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, was killed in an ambush on 1st November 2019. Two other Guajajara chiefs were killed in December 2019. On 31st March 2020, Zezico Guajajara, another land defender of the Guajajara tribe, was found dead with gunshot wounds near his village of Zutiwa.

In a separate development in early August 2020, civil society organisations denounced that the Brazilian government vetoed the participation of Indigenous leader Nara Baré in a meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) on Indigenous peoples. Baré, the executive coordinator of the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon, had been invited to speak on the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples at the event with representatives from several countries. According to news reports, Brazil’s ambassador to the OAS requested that the leader be uninvited, even after her participation as a speaker had been confirmed.

On 11th August 2020, an Indigenous school had part of its structure burned by criminal arson in the Fulni-Ô village, Pernambuco state. Several books and material, as well as part of the building’s structure were damaged. The attackers also graffitied offensive messages on the school’s walls.


Killings and attacks on journalists

On the occasion of Brazil’s “journalists day” celebrated on 7th April, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) published a statement recognising the increasingly hostile environment for the country’s communications professionals.

On 13th May 2020, journalist Leonardo Pinheiro was shot and killed while conducting interviews in Araruama, Rio de Janeiro state. Pinheiro managed a social media news page, A Voz Araruamense, which covers local and community issues. He also collaborated on other local media and intended to run for city council in the 2020 municipal elections. According to local news reports, a car approached as Pinheiro interviewed people from the neighbourhood. An assailant got out, told the journalist to kneel and executed him in plain sight. The attacker and other unidentified men in the vehicle fled the scene. Brazil’s National Journalists Association called for a prompt investigation, stating that impunity contributes to the insecurity for journalistic work.

Several other violent attacks against journalists were registered between April and July 2020:

  • On 9th April 2020, an unidentified person fired five times at the home of radio journalist Vamberto Teixeira in the city of Sete Lagoas in Minas Gerais. As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Texeira went outside to see what had happened after the shooting and found five bullet holes in the gate. Witnesses told the journalist that it was a drive-by shooting targeting his house. According to Teixeira, the investigative police have not reached out after he filed a police report.
  • On 10th June 2020, an unidentified man broke into the Rio de Janeiro headquarters of TV Globo, Brazil’s largest broadcaster, and briefly took reporter Marina Araújo hostage with a knife. According to a statement by TV Globo, the man demanded to speak to Renata Vasconcellos, news anchor of the broadcaster’s flagship news programme. The military police negotiated Araújo's release and arrested the assailant, who was later said to suffer from mental health issues.
  • On 30th July 2020, unidentified men attacked journalist Alex Braga while he was driving in Manaus, Amazonas state. The assailants drove their car into Braga’s vehicle and then punched and threatened him. A colleague of the journalist was also in the car and witnessed the attack. Braga hosts a local TV programme and often reports on corruption. According to the National Investigative Journalists’ Association, the attackers told Braga he was speaking too much on his show and that they would kill him.

Further cases of harassment and intimidation

Alongside violent attacks, the period between April and July 2020 saw increasing cases of intimidation, smear campaigns and public vilification. On 25th May 2020, three major media outlets, Globo, Folha and Band, announced that for security reasons their journalists would no longer report on interviews in front of the presidential residence. From the beginning of his term, Bolsonaro has given informal interviews to media and spoken to supporters who stand in front of the building. However, in the first semester of 2020 there were several cases of government supporters verbally abusing and threatening journalists on those occasions. On at least one occasion, journalists left a press conference after Bolsonaro encouraged hostility against them when responding to a question from the press.

There have also been at least two cases of journalists attacked by Bolsonaro supporters when covering demonstrations and other events. Civil society organisation Article 19 and other press freedom organisations have warned that the situation for journalists in Brazil is at crisis level and pointed out the President and government's direct role in the increase in attacks on journalists. In July 2020, Reporters Without Borders published a report recording dozens of cases in which politicians and public authorities attacked the media in the second trimester of the year. On this topic, the director of Article 19 South America, Denise Dora said:

"Journalists and communicators are being attacked with impunity by supporters of the president. The authorities' failure to take action is emboldening those who want to silence the media".

In May 2020, William Bonner, editor-in-chief and news anchor of Brazil’s most-watched TV news programme, and his daughter received threatening text messages from an unknown number listing personal information of various family members. Days earlier, the journalist had reported on social media that his son’s fiscal information had been used by a third party to commit fraud. In June and July 2020, communicator Felipe Neto and trans artist Rosa Luz were targeted by online smear campaigns after criticising government. Luz said she decided to temporarily delete her social media accounts due to the harassment she was receiving.

On 15th June 2020, Minister of Justice André Mendonça said on social media that he had requested an investigation into Renato Aroeira for a satirical cartoon and journalist Ricardo Noblat for sharing the piece. Aroeira’s cartoon, created for news portal Brasil 247, portrays President Jair Bolsonaro transforming a medical red cross into a swastika. The Minister claimed the art violated a law criminalising slander and defamation of public authorities. Opposition party Rede filed a petition in Brazil's Supreme Court to question the investigation, arguing that a criminal inquiry over the cartoon was unconstitutional. Several cartoonists and illustrators joined a campaign in solidarity with Aroeira and in defence of artistic freedom. On 7th July 2020, the Minister said he would request another investigation into journalist Helio Schwartsman for an opinion column published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.

'Fake news' law may restrict freedom of expression

In April 2020, a draft bill to combat “fake news” (PL 2.630 / 2020 ) was introduced for consideration by the Brazilian Senate. The text of the bill has been considered problematic by some experts because of its impact on freedom of expression and privacy online. Critics also highlighted the lack of transparency and reduced multi-stakeholder participation in the legislation’s debate. On 26th June 2020, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI) and 46 civil society organisations published a statement recommending an in-depth debate on the bill with the inclusion of opinions from specialised press freedom organisations.

Faced with criticism, the Senate postponed the vote three times but finally approved it on 30th June 2020. Digital rights coalition Direitos na Rede commented on the version of the law approved by the Senate, highlighting improvements and important concerns. According to these experts, the text removed definitions which could have resulted in censorship and discarded some proposals that might have been used to criminalise dissent. However, key aspects of concern remain, including the potential for violation of privacy and restrictions affecting data protection, internet access and freedom of expression.

Press freedom organisation Article 19 recognised the importance of tackling disinformation, but stated that transparency, promotion of media freedom and digital literacy public policy are more appropriate ways to address disinformation than regulation-based approaches. The organisation stated:

"We are urging the House of Representatives to withdraw the Bill and start a proper dialogue on how to tackle disinformation that includes all stakeholders, including civil society and academics."

The current legislative text will be analysed and voted on in the Chamber of Deputies, a process that the Chamber’s president has vowed to “fast-track” for this draft bill.

Violations of access to information and transparency during the pandemic

In June 2020, following months of criticism on the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Bolsonaro administration implemented measures that undermined access to information and transparency on the pandemic. On 5th June 2020, the Ministry of Health’s website for COVID-19 data was briefly taken down and reviewed. A new version prevented data download and removed key information such as the cumulative number of infections and deaths. Also on 5th June, a newly-appointed official said the government would conduct a recount of the COVID-19 death toll, implying without evidence that the numbers published until then were inflated and untrustworthy. Finally, the Ministry of Health reduced the frequency of press conferences and delayed epidemiological bulletins.

These decisions raised doubts about the credibility of the data shared by the Ministry of Health and engendered a backlash from civil society, lawmakers and health experts, in particular as news outlets reported that the changes were politically motivated. Government authorities, including the president, had previously expressed dissatisfaction at the way the data was presented and claimed the press exaggerated the crisis using distorted figures. However, health specialists and civil society organisations estimated that Brazil was likely underreporting cases due to the lack of testing.