Brazil’s civic space in dispute amid democratic backsliding

Brazil’s civic space in dispute amid democratic backsliding
Demonstrators gather in São Paulo to call for Bolsonaro's impeachment. 19 June 2021 (Photo by Rodrigo Paiva/Getty Images).

Brazil’s institutional crisis has expanded as President Jair Bolsonaro seeks to undermine trust in the electoral system and embarks on disputes with the Federal Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro, whose falling popularity reached its lowest levels since assuming office, doubled down on his attempts to discredit Brazil’s electronic voting system ahead of presidential elections in 2022. He has frequently claimed without evidence that the system, used for over two decades in Brazil, is vulnerable to fraud. Experts have rejected these claims as meritless. Regardless, in July and August 2021 Bolsonaro often implied he would not recognise election results unless voters were able to record their votes in a paper ballot. In a rally with supporters, he warned that the 2022 election might not be held if physical ballots were not reintroduced.

On 6th August 2021, a Special Commission of the Chamber of Deputies rejected a proposal by Bolsonaro allies to change the voting system. However, the Chamber’s president Arthur Lira still decided to take the matter to a vote by the plenary. On 8th August 2021, Bolsonaro supporters held demonstrations to back the proposal. On the day that the Chamber of Deputies was set to vote on the bill, Bolsonaro organised a parade of armoured military tanks in front of the Congressional building. On 10th August 2021, the bill was rejected by lawmakers, falling 79 votes short of the 308 needed to approve it.

His crusade against the voting system has also led Bolsonaro to frequently target attacks at Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, who also serves as president of the Superior Electoral Court. Barroso has often spoken out to defend the integrity of the country’s elections. On 14th August 2021, President Bolsonaro said on his social media pages that he would seek the impeachment of Justices Barroso and Alexandre de Moraes from the Supreme Court, saying they had pushed constitutional boundaries. The threat came after Moraes determined the preventive detention of Bolsonaro ally and former legislator Roberto Jefferson, in the framework of an inquiry into alleged digital militias involved in promoting anti-democratic actions.


Senate approves bill revoking National Security Law

On 10th August 2021, the Brazilian Senate approved Bill 2.108/2021 revoking the controversial National Security Law, a dictatorship-era piece of legislation used to criminalise social movements and intimidate government critics. The legislative project would modify the Penal Code to include a chapter on crimes against the rule of law, creating a “Law of the Democratic State”. The new articles would typify crimes such as attack on sovereignty and national integrity, interruption of the electoral process and sabotage of essential services.

The bill also establishes “crimes against citizenship and against the right to protest”. The prevention of free and peaceful exercise of the right to protest, through violence or serious threat, would be punishable with prison sentences of between one and four years. Longer prison terms would be applicable in cases where the crime results in bodily harm or death. The text also explicitly states that journalistic activity, criticism of powerholders and demonstrations to demand rights are not considered crimes under this law.

To enter into force, the legislation must be sanctioned by President Jair Bolsonaro by early September 2021.

Arrest of activists involved in protest action

On 24th July 2021, activists with Revolução Periférica (Peripheral Revolution) set fire to a statue in São Paulo in protest against slavery and colonisation. The statue portrays “bandeirante” Borba Gato, one of the fortune hunters who participated in the westward expansion of colonisation between the 16th and 18th centuries. Bandeirantes, lauded as heroes in Brazil’s traditional historiography for their role in the discovery of mineral wealth and the expansion of national territory, are now viewed as controversial figures for their involvement in the massacre and enslavement of Indigenous peoples, as well as their role in recapturing fugitive slaves. The Borba Gato statue is frequently criticised by social movements and has been targeted by protesters several times in the past.

Days after the direct action, activists Danilo Oliveira, known as “Biu”, and Paulo Roberto da Silva Lima, known as “Galo”, and driver Thiago Vieira Zem were arrested for their role in the protest. Charges against them include “arson”, “criminal association” and “licence plate tampering”. Galo and Biu, who presented themselves voluntarily to the police, were put in temporary detention. Their arrest was criticised by human rights groups as disproportionate, given their voluntary collaboration with the investigation. Galo’s partner, Géssica Barbosa, was also detained for two days despite not taking part in the protest or in the activist movement. She was released on 30th July 2021 for lack of evidence of her involvement.

While a court ordered Galo’s release on 5th August 2021, the judge who had originally dictated his temporary detention ruled to remand him in pre-trial detention. According to news reports, the judge argued Galo’s detention was justified because of his role as a founder of Revolução Periférica and of a movement by delivery app workers to defend their labour rights. The controversial ruling was overturned, and Galo, Biu and Vieira Zem were released on 10th August 2021. Charges against them still stand.

Human rights defender’s habeas corpus request rejected

On 12th July 2021, the Court of Justice of the State of Pará rejected a habeas corpus request from the local Lawyers’ Bar Association (OAB-PA) for the closure of criminal proceedings against human rights defender and lawyer José Vargas Sobrinho Junior. OAB-PA said the case against the defender has been marred by irregularities and violations of due process.

As previously reported on the Monitor, Vargas is the lawyer for the victims and survivors of a massacre of landless rural workers by police in Pará. He was arrested without evidence in January 2021, in connection with the disappearance of a candidate to local office. Civil society organisations such as Frontline Defenders and Article 19 said the defender’s arrest is part of a wider pattern of criminalisation of social movements in the region. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, has also expressed concern that Vargas Sobrinho Junior’s detention may be directly related to his human rights advocacy.

Peaceful Assembly

Police repression of Indigenous protesters

On 22nd June 2021, police repressed Indigenous peoples who protested in Brasília against bills which could undermine legal protection for their territories. The march was organised as part of the “Acampamento Levante Pela Terra” (“Rise for the Earth Camp”), a demonstration coordinated the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Indigenous Peoples Articulation of Brazil - APIB) and joined by over 850 Indigenous protesters from 45 peoples.

The camp, set up on 8th June 2021, was focused on resistance to legislative efforts to roll back Indigenous land rights. One proposal negotiated by the Chamber of Deputies, Bill 490, would limit Indigenous land demarcation; allow mining, roads and other projects in Indigenous territories without appropriate consultation; and overturn decades of policies to protect the rights of isolated Indigenous communities.

During the protest on 22nd June, the Indigenous demonstrators gathered in front of the congressional building to follow a vote on Bill 490 and demand its rejection. Police responded with rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas, injuring three people. At least ten others had to receive medical attention, including children and elderly people. One of those injured, a young protester and member of the Sapará peoples, was hospitalised for treatment of the rubber bullet wounds on his chest and back. Some demonstrators used arrows in an attempt to defend themselves from the police intervention, leaving one police officer and one security guard injured.

According to news reports, the Congressional security claimed the Indigenous protesters had attempted to storm the building. The Indigenous organisations denied this version, saying the protest was peaceful. The Executive Coordinator of APIB, Dinamam Tuxá, said in a statement:

“We were brutally and cowardly attacked before we arrived to follow the vote. We have injured Indigenous people and the police threw bombs on our paramedics, making it difficult to provide care.”

A similar incident took place on 16th June 2021, when Indigenous peoples protesting in front of FUNAI, the Brazilian protection agency for Indigenous peoples, were repressed by military police using tear gas and pepper spray. APIB issued a public statement condemning the repression and said members of the government were trying to delegitimise Indigenous protesters claims' by linking them with violent actions.

Anti-government protests continue

Between May and July 2021, anti-government protesters repeatedly took to the streets to demand President Bolsonaro’s impeachment, more COVID-19 vaccines and emergency relief during the pandemic. On 29th May 2021, thousands joined demonstrations convened by social movements in all 27 state capitals and several other cities across the country. In São Paulo, organisers estimated over 80,000 people had joined the protest.

In Recife, Pernambuco state, protesters were repressed by the military police with tear gas and rubber bullets. Videos from news reports showed the police’s shock troops advancing on peaceful protesters without provocation, leading to confusion and demonstrators running to disperse. A city councillor who attempted to negotiate with the police officers was attacked with pepper spray. Two people, Daniel Campelo and Jonas Correia de França, were hit in the eye with rubber bullets and sustained permanent injuries. Campelo, who permanently lost sight in his left eye, was a bystander who was passing through the area when the police repression took place. Four police officers involved in the operation were reportedly suspended pending investigation.

On 19th June 2021, tens of thousands rallied against the government again in dozens of cities. According to news reports, endorsement for the protests increased as anger rose over revelations of alleged corruption in the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, just as the pandemic’s death toll in the country reached half a million people. The largest march was registered in São Paulo, where organisers estimated over 100,000 had joined the protest. Large marches also took place in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília.

Similar protests took place on 3rd and 24th July 2021. During the latter, police used tear gas against protesters in São Paulo.


Threats and attacks on journalists

On 19th July 2021, journalist Jackson Silva was shot six times by unidentified attackers in the city of Moju, Pará state. The assailants reportedly waited for the journalist outside his home and fled on a motorcycle after the attack. Silva sustained serious wounds and underwent surgery. The reporter’s wife and two children were also present but were not injured. Silva, a director of digital media Moju News, hosts a weekly programme summarising news stories on the outlet’s social networks. According to another reporter, Moju News frequently covers crime, drug trafficking and policing issues. In April 2021, Silva said on his Facebook page that he had received a death threat.

On 9th July 2021, lawyer Frederick Wassef, who represents President Jair Bolsonaro and members of his family, threatened journalist Juliana Dal Piva of digital outlet UOL. In a text message, Wassef implied the reporter was a communist and militant, asking why she didn’t “move to China” where she would “disappear, and not even your body would be found”. The lawyer also accused Dal Piva of “attacking and trying to destroy Brazil’s president, his family and his lawyer” and called her “an enemy of the homeland”. Days earlier, Dal Piva had interviewed Wassef for a series of reports on alleged corruption involving Bolsonaro and his family.

On 22nd June 2021, Brazil’s National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ) and the Union of Journalists of the Federal District (SJPDF) denounced that reporters and union leaders Victor Ribeiro and Gésio Passos were facing harassment. Both are employed by the public company Empresa Brasil de Comunicação (Brazil Communication Company – EBC), which manages the federal government’s broadcast networks. According to a FENAJ statement, EBC’s managers threatened to investigate Ribeiro after the reporter refused to censor coverage of the Senate’s Commission of Inquiry into the pandemic. Meanwhile Passos was arbitrarily transferred, in a context of alleged aggressive anti-union action by the company’s management. Passos is the director of SJPDF.

Positive ruling on State liability for journalists’ integrity in protests

In a positive development, on 10th June 2021, the Federal Supreme Court ruled to hold the Brazilian State responsible in cases of journalists injured by security forces while covering demonstrations. The landmark decision, approved in a 10-1 vote, determined that the State of São Paulo must pay compensation to photojournalist Alex Silveira, who in 2000 was injured and left blind in his left eye after being shot with a rubber bullet by the São Paulo military police. Compensation was set at 100 minimum wage salaries and reimbursement for medical expenses and medication.

The Court’s ruling overturned a 2014 decision by the São Paulo Court of Appeals holding that the journalist was responsible for his own injuries, arguing that he put himself at risk by staying in the middle of the confrontation between police and teachers during the protest. The case sets a precedent for similar cases. However, it may not apply where “the press professional disregards clear and ostensible warnings regarding access to limited areas where there is a serious risk to their physical integrity”.

Law professor prosecuted over opinion articles

At the end of May 2021, Brazil’s Prosecutor General Augusto Aras filed a criminal complaint against law professor Conrado Hübner Mendes, who wrote a newspaper column criticising Aras for failing to investigate alleged crimes committed by government officials. The complaint claimed Hübner had committed “calumny, libel and defamation” in the opinion piece, where he argued Aras acted in contradiction with his role, protecting members of the Bolsonaro government by archiving legitimate criminal proceedings against them and by shielding the president and his family from investigations. On 15th August 2021, a judge dismissed the Prosecutor General’s complaint and highlighted that “freedom of expression and a free press are pillars of democratic society”.

Hübner Mendes is facing another defamation complaint filed by Supreme Court Justice Kassio Nunes Marques in July 2021, over the professor’s criticism of the Minister’s decision to allow religious services during Easter 2021. Nunes Marques’ provisional decision was issued last-minute, a day before the holiday, forcing states and local governments to allow services despite pandemic restrictions. In a plenary session after Easter, the Supreme Court overturned Nunes Marques’ decision. Hübner Mendes wrote that Nunes Marques, who was nominated to the Court by Bolsonaro, had acted in bad faith and abused his powers to satisfy the federal government – which has often engaged in disputes with state governments over pandemic restrictions. Academic and civil society organisations published a statement in support of Hübner Mendes, saying:

“While such a practice has unfortunately become commonplace in Brazil, it reaches a new level in a scenario in which a Minister of the Federal Supreme Court and the highest representative of the Public Prosecutor's Office make efforts to criminalise criticism of their decisions, thus chilling Brazilian public opinion.”

Report finds frequent attacks on media by President and family

In July 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a report about attacks on the media by President Bolsonaro and his family. According to their monitoring, the president’s attacks on media increased 74% in the first semester of 2021, in comparison with the previous six months. The organisation recorded 331 attacks on the press by Bolsonaro and his family in 2021. RSF said these attacks have not only increased in quantity but have also become cruder and more vulgar as the president responded to allegations of mishandling the pandemic response. Women journalists have been among those most targeted, often facing misogynous attacks by Bolsonaro, members of his government and his supporters.