Dictatorship-era National Security Law used to intimidate critics in Brazil

Activists display flags and hundreds of plastic body bags, representing the 400,000 dead of coronavirus, in protest against official response to the pandemic. April 2021, Buda Mendes/Getty Images.

On 29th April 2021, Brazil became the second country to surpass 400,000 coronavirus deaths, according to data by Johns Hopkins University. In April 2021 alone, the country lost nearly 85,000 lives – the deadliest month yet of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same month, the Senate launched a Commission of Inquiry into the government’s handling of the public health emergency. The investigation will scrutinise the government’s conduct in minimising the severity of the pandemic, the promotion of scientifically unproven medication and the slow vaccine procurement, among other actions. Lawmakers in the Commission will hear from multiple witnesses and may recommend criminal charges against public authorities, including governors and President Jair Bolsonaro.

In response to criticism, in particular accusations of promoting a genocide, government authorities increasingly resorted to the country’s dictatorship-era National Security Law in the early months of 2021. The legislation enacted in 1983 defines crimes against national security and public order, including increased penalties for slander and defamation against the President, the leaders of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and Supreme Court justices. Even after Brazil’s transition to democracy, the law has sometimes been used to criminalise protesters and social movements.

As reported by newspaper Folha de São Paulo through access to information requests, the law was used to conduct 77 investigations in the first two years of the Bolsonaro government - a 285% increase in comparison with the previous two governments. 51 of these inquiries were opened in 2020, more than the 44 cases registered between 2015 and 2018, the four years before Bolsonaro’s term.

In February 2021, the Supreme Court applied the controversial law to order the arrest of a federal legislator who had published a video offending justices of the Court and praising the military dictatorship. In March 2021, the use of the National Security Law came under further scrutiny as it was used to arrest five protesters and to investigate a blogger who called Bolsonaro “genocidal”, as well as to detain a young man over his comments on Twitter.

This arbitrary use of the law, criticised by jurists for its authoritarian nature, raised debate on replacing the legislation. On 4th May 2021, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill to revoke the National Security Law and replace it with new articles in the Criminal Code defining ten crimes against democracy. Only two weeks earlier, legislators had approved a request to process the bill as an urgent matter – a measure criticised by civil society as it allowed Congress to bypass public consultation. 125 organisations signed a statement saying a wide debate was needed to ensure new legislation would not affect fundamental freedoms. The bill will now be considered by the Senate.


Killing of human rights defender and witness in police violence case

On 26th January 2021, land rights defender Fernando dos Santos Araújo was shot and killed in his house in Pau D’Arco, in the state of Pará. He was one of the survivors of the Pau D'Arco massacre of May 2017, when police troops killed ten landless rural workers. Fernando dos Santos Araújo was a key witness in the case and had been included in the Victims and Witnesses Programme. Despite receiving constants threats, he continued to act as a spokesperson for the survivors of the violence and was a central figure in the demand for justice for its victims. Civil society organisation Front Line Defenders reported receiving information about several inconsistencies surrounding the criminal expert report and investigative process on Fernando dos Santos Araújo’s murder.

Human rights organisations also reported risks to the lawyer representing the victims of the massacre, José Vargas, who has also received threats for his work. In January 2021, Vargas was arrested under accusations of involvement in the disappearance of a candidate to local office, yet the prosecutor failed to present evidence to support his preventive detention. He was put under house arrest on 25th January 2021, although he was reportedly not formally charged. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, expressed concern that his detention may be directly related to his human rights advocacy.

Indigenous defender killed by military police

On 12th February 2021, young Indigenous defender Isac Tembé was shot and killed by military police in the Alto Rio Guama Indigenous Territory, in the state of Pará. The 24-year-old was a history teacher and member of the community’s youth organisation. Indigenous association Associação Indígena Tembé Das Aldeias Tawari e Zawaruhu published a statement saying the military police had killed the young defender “twice” by alleging, after the killing, that Isac was involved in criminal activities. Civil society reported that police had been responding to a phone call by a local rancher's son about a potential cattle robbery, and that officers failed to respect appropriate protocols during the operation.

Intimidation and attacks on human rights defenders

On 26th January 2021, attackers shot at the house of human rights defender and local representative Carolina Iara. Iara is an intersex LGBTQIA+ activist and member of the “Feminist Caucus”, serving as co-councillor in São Paulo’s city council. She told news media that she had not received threats, but has been constantly subjected to online harassment since entering politics.

Separately, news outlets reported that a lawyer representing the Renova Foundation had threatened victims of the Mariana dam disaster during a meeting on 21st January 2021. The Renova Foundation is maintained by mining companies Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton to execute reparations to the victims of the tailings dam’s failure. In a leaked audio, the foundation’s lawyer is heard telling members of the victims’ committee that if they organised another protest blocking railways they would stop receiving compensation payments. Days before, a group had staged such a protest to highlight issues in the compensation system. In February 2021, the Minas Gerais State Prosecutor’s Office requested the legal closure of the Renova Foundation, saying it had acted more to limit accountability of the private companies involved in the disaster than to ensure reparations to victims.

On 25th March 2021, the headquarters of Indigenous women’s association Associação das Mulheres Munduruku Wakoborũn in Jacareacanga, Pará state, were vandalised by a group known to support mining in Indigenous territory. The attackers burned documents and damaged the office’s façade, windows, furniture as well as samples of Indigenous crafts. According to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the same group raided the association’s headquarters again on 18th April 2021. The Prosecutor’s Office said their investigation indicated that the attack was one in a series of planned actions to silence the Indigenous group and stop them from speaking out about illegal activity in Munduruku territory.

In a separate incident of intimidation, Sonia Guajajara, a leader of Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Brasil’s Indigenous Peoples Coordination - Apib), received a subpoena by police in April 2021 for alleged slander of President Bolsonaro. The complaint, filed by the country’s Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, was based on Sonia’s testimony in Apib’s webseries Maracá - Indigenous Emergency about the State’s neglect and institutional violence against Indigenous peoples in Brazil. On 5th May 2021, a judge halted the police probe, saying in court documents that its main goal was to “silence political demonstrations” by Apib.

Human rights report “condemned” by Ministry

Amnesty International’s annual report described an escalation in anti-human rights rhetoric in Brazil, increasing the risks to human rights defenders. The organisation said civic space continued to shrink, fomented by an official narrative that stigmatised NGOs, journalists, activists, human rights defenders and social movements. Their analysis also cited the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on women and vulnerable groups, which it said was exacerbated by inequalities and ongoing denial of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 7th April 2021, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights said the government “condemned” the declarations contained in Amnesty International’s report. The Ministry has often been criticised by civil society groups for supporting Bolsonaro’s promotion of an anti-rights agenda, including by excluding civil society from discussions on changes to the country’s most important human rights policy.


Brazil was ranked 111th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index. This was a decline from the previous year, when the country was ranked 107th. RSF said Brazil has a “toxic environment for media” and is now marked red on the World Press Freedom map because its situation is classified as “bad”. The organisation also underscored that access to official pandemic figures was complicated by a lack of transparency on the part of the government.

In another report on freedom of expression in Brazil, the Associação Brasileira de Emissoras de Rádio e Televisão (Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters) said the most frequent violations of press freedom registered in the country in 2020 were insults, assaults, intimidation and threats.

Two journalists killed in April

On 4th April 2021, Weverton Rabelo Fróes, a radio show host and comedian nicknamed Toninho Locutor, was gunned down in Planaltino, in Bahia state. The host of a programme on Radio Antena 1 and the founder and owner of a local amateur radio station, he was killed outside the door to his home by a man who arrived on a motorcycle, opened fire and then rode off.

In another case, on 9th April 2021, José Bonfim Pitangueiras, a producer with television channel TV Record, was shot and killed on the street in Salvador, capital of Bahia, by gunmen in a car who then drove away. According to RSF, family members said he had not reported receiving any recent threats in connection with his work.

Attacks and threats to journalists continue

On 12th December 2020, journalist Marco Antônio Ferreira, a host at Rádio Nova Brasil, found his car in flames in his garage at home in the city of Araçatuba, in São Paulo state. As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ferreira had received threatening voicemail messages via WhatsApp during municipal elections in November 2020. He was also subjected to online harassment in the weeks preceding this attack.

In a separate case, on 1st April 2021 journalist Diego Santos received an envelope containing two bullets and a handwritten threat in the city of Boa Vista, state of Roraima. As reported by CPJ, the message read: “To Diego Santos. The most accurate way to silence any complaint”. Santos hosts a daily news show on TV Norte Boa Vista, where he frequently covers crime, policing issues and alleged corruption.

Reporters Without Borders also underscored that there have been several serious incidents involving, in particular, journalists who questioned the way the authorities are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. On 6th April 2021, the offices of community radio Rádio Comunidade in Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, Pernambuco, were invaded by four men identifying themselves as Bolsonaro supporters. They threatened the journalists present, in particular radio host Júnior Albuquerque, saying they had not appreciated their criticism of the government’s pandemic management.

In another incident, the offices of Folha da Região in Olímpia, São Paulo, were torched on 17th March 2021. Two weeks later, police reported that a local firefighter had confessed to the crime and also admitted setting fire to a journalist’s car. The attacker reportedly said the arson was an act of “revolt against the press, which is not helping to combat the health crisis”.

Cyber-attacks against human rights media outlets and organisations

On 10th December 2020, LGBTQI+ rights organisation Casa Chama faced a cyberattack. Hackers took control of the organisation’s Instagram account and erased posts and videos containing information about the rights of the trans population in Brazil, health and safety guidelines, and material on the organisation’s work and activities.

In another incident, between 6th and 12th January 2021, unidentified attackers orchestrated a DDoS attack on the website of Repórter Brasil, an investigative reporting and human rights organisation. These types of attacks overwhelm a website or server with an excessive amount of traffic, bringing down the system. During those days, the outlet received anonymous emails threatening further attacks if they did not remove all reporting from 2003 to 2005. The period’s coverage includes reporting on labour conditions of rural workers, slavery and gold mining in Pará state, the impact of a hydroelectric plant in Minas Gerais state, and human trafficking.

In addition to the cyberattacks, CPJ reported that on 7th January 2021 a group attempted to enter Repórter Brasil’s headquarters in São Paulo. The break-in was unsuccessful but damaged the building’s gate. Repórter Brasil issued a public statement saying that the organisation “did not and will not comply with any attempt of illegal constraint”, especially one that would represent self-censorship.

A similar case took place between 26th March and 2nd April 2021, when unidentified attackers orchestrated DDoS attacks on Portal Catarinas, an online media outlet dedicated to gender issues and human rights in the state of Santa Catarina. As reported by CPJ, the outlet’s website and institutional email accounts were inaccessible for several hours during those days. The day the attack started, the site had published an article critical of a bill currently under discussion in the Brazilian Senate that would offer victims of rape a financial reward if they forego an abortion. Feminist and human rights organisations have widely criticised the Bill.

In April 2021, Brazil’s National Library website was also attacked by hackers using ransomware. This type of attack prevents access to files, systems or networks in order to demand payment. To protect the Library’s thousands of archives, the website remained offline for 15 days. About 5% of the archives were still compromised when the website was restored.

Restrictive laws

As reported in the introduction to this update, the authorities’ use of the National Security Law came under scrutiny at the beginning of 2021. On 3rd March 2021, a young man in Minas Gerais was detained after publishing a tweet with a joke which the police considered a threat against Bolsonaro’s life. On 15th March 2021, YouTuber Felipe Neto was subpoenaed by police for alleged slander against the President. The complaint cited Neto’s comments calling Bolsonaro “genocidal” for his management of the coronavirus pandemic. A Rio de Janeiro court suspended the investigation two days later.

On 31st March 2021, the National Council for Human Rights (CNDH) published a note condemning attacks on freedom of expression through legislation. In the communication, the CNDH reaffirmed its stance against censorship, political violence, persecution, disinformation and hate speech. The Council also defended the suspension of punishments already in progress and future sanctions based on the law. The note states:

“In the last month, we have watched with concern the escalation of judicial harassment of citizens who have expressed their criticism of the President, Jair Bolsonaro. In common, the use of the National Security Law to persecute and silence opponents of the government, and even to try to silence banners and billboards around the country, as well as embarrassing public agents, compelling them to carry out unfounded criminal prosecutions.”

As debate on replacing the law advanced in Congress, civil society organisations warned about the need for wide public debate about new legislation. Civil society organisations criticised the decision to adopt urgency procedures to consider a bill to revoke the National Security Law, which would also introduce new articles in the Criminal Code on crimes against democracy. Eight civil society organisations published a statement saying that while the security law must be revoked, the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies would preserve some instruments which have been used to criminalise protesters and social movements.

In a separate development, in April 2021 legislators in the state of São Paulo considered a bill which would prohibit advertising “alluding to gender and sexual orientation and movements about sexual diversity related to children”. The proponents claimed that images of LGBTQI+ people in advertising could cause discomfort to families. Civil society groups condemned the bill and mobilised against it with an online campaign. On 28th April 2021, state legislators voted to remove the bill from the agenda, returning it to analysis by legislative commissions.

Civil society responds to attacks on freedom of expression

In a positive development, civil society mobilised against judicial harassment. The Associação Brasileira de Imprensa (Brazilian Press Association – ABI) filed a unconstitutionality claim with the Supreme Court to curb the abuse of lawsuits against journalists and media companies.

Meanwhile Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo, (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism - ABRAJI) launched a programme to guarantee legal assistance to journalists who cannot bear defence costs and pay potential damages. The Legal Protection Programme for Journalists was created with funding from the international organisation Media Defence and a partnership with Tornavoz Institute. Similarly, after being investigated for slander over criticism of Bolsonaro, in March 2021 YouTuber Felipe Neto partnered with law firms to fund a new civil society group providing legal aid to anyone investigated or charged for criticising public authorities or for expressing ideas.

Peaceful Assembly

On 18th March 2021, police detained five demonstrators in a protest in Brasília after they displayed a banner depicting Bolsonaro as a Nazi and calling him “genocidal” for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Police said the detained protesters violated the National Security Law. Four of the five protesters were released without charge hours later, following intervention from lawmakers and pressure from civil society. The fifth person detained reportedly continued in police custody for a previous unrelated charge of alleged contempt of authority.

On 6th May 2021, at least 27 people were killed after heavily armed police stormed Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarezinho favela, in what was the deadliest massacre by police officers in the city’s history. Organisations working in the favela questioned the shocking brutality against residents, who are mostly Black. Civil society group Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights) said reports from community residents point to terror and atrocities, including house raids and summary executions carried out in front of children and other family members.

The violence occurred despite an order by the Supreme Court to suspend police operations in pursuit of drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro’s slums because of the pandemic. According to Amnesty International, the state government has systematically failed to comply with the decision by the nation’s highest court and the operations have not stopped.

Hundreds of people joined a protest in Jacarezinho against the police killings, demanding an independent investigation and justice for the victims. Demonstrations also took place in front of a local police station and in São Paulo. Two protesters were detained in the protest in São Paulo. The Black Coalition for Rights called on supporters to join protests on 13th May 2021, the anniversary of the law which formally abolished slavery in Brazil in 1888.