Brazil: environmental and land defenders killed, journalists attacked and pandemic data blackout

Brazil: environmental and land defenders killed, journalists attacked and pandemic data blackout
Demonstrators hold signs in support of Indigenous lands. São Paulo, 2 October 2021. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images.


Rights defenders killed

In early January 2022, three environmental defenders of the same family were found dead in São Felix do Xingu, south of the state of Pará. José Gomes, known as Zé do Lago, Márcia Nunes Lisboa and their teenage daughter Joene Nunes Lisboa were executed with multiple gunshots and their bodies were found near their home. Zé do Lago and Márcia lived in the Muruca region for over 20 years, where they developed a project to repopulate local waters with baby turtles. A police investigation into their murders is ongoing.

In a separate case, on 29th October 2021, two rural workers and activists with land rights group Liga dos Camponeses Pobres (League of Poor Rural Workers - LCP) were killed in a military police operation in the region of Nova Mutum, Rondônia. The operation involved over 400 officers, who carried out evictions of rural workers from eight farms of the area. The police claimed the two activists were armed and killed in a shoot-out, also saying one of the militants was a suspect in crimes that occurred in the region. The LCP responded saying the police’s accusations were unfounded and that the two activists were illegally executed.

In November 2021, news outlet Repórter Brasil reported that police raided the homes of at least 25 people connected to the LCP and seized computers and equipment from a lawyer representing LCP in multiple ongoing cases. According to the news outlet, there have been repeated police operations against LCP camps and members, with violence escalating after authorities accused members of the group of involvement in the killing of two military police officers in 2020.

Human rights defenders assaulted and harassed

On 27th September 2021, Denizar de Oliveira, member of the Movimento Nacional de População em Situação de Rua de Goiás (National Movement of the Homeless Population - MNPR - GO), was attacked by eight military police officers in Goiânia. According to Oliveira's statements, he was asleep when the officers entered his house and began beating him. Local human rights groups said the reason for the police operation was unclear, but highlighted that the raid was illegal because no warrant was presented.

In separate developments, Brazilian environmental activists who participated in the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) reported facing harassment and retaliatory attacks. Overnight on 13th November 2021, the home of Indigenous leader Alessandra Korap Munduruku was raided by unknown attackers. The assailants damaged a window and stole documents, a computer and some cash, as well as the footage from a security camera. The leader and her family were not at home at the time. In another case, young Indigenous defender Txai Suruí said she was threatened online and in person after making a speech during the COP26 Leaders’ Summit on 1st November 2021. A member of Brazil’s diplomatic delegation also sought to intimidate the young activist after her speech.

CSOs denounce violations of defenders’ rights at the IACHR

On 22nd October 2021, several civil society groups participated in a public hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to denounce violations against human rights defenders and environmental defenders in Brazil. The organisations informed the Commission about the lack of protection for defenders, and the persecution, criminalisation and stigmatisation of Indigenous peoples, Quilombolas, and other traditional communities. They also pointed out the lack of dialogue with the State and their difficulties in ensuring compliance with the ILO Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention (No. 169). The Commission reminded the State of its obligations concerning the protection of these groups and highlighted the importance of free, prior and informed consultation processes as a critical element for protecting human rights.

On a related note, the report “The Last Line of Defence” published by civil society organisation Global Witness recorded 227 lethal attacks against land and environmental defenders worldwide in 2020. This was the highest figure recorded by the organisation since their monitoring began in 2012. Brazil occupied in the fourth position in the global ranking of countries with the most cases, with 20 defenders killed, behind only Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines. In Brazil, nearly three quarters of the killings occurred in the Amazon region and targeted Indigenous defenders.

Bills and laws affecting civic space

Between October and December 2021, several civil society groups expressed concern about a bill to amend Brazil’s Anti-Terrorism Law which could pave the way for civic space violations in the country. Bill 1595/2019, proposed by supporters of president Bolsonaro in Congress, would create a system of counter-terrorist actions based on a new broad and undefined concept of terrorism. It would expand the Executive’s powers of surveillance and create a dangerous presumption of legality for actions to combat terrorism, without effective mechanisms of control and accountability regarding abusive interventions that may be committed by public agents.

According to Instituto Igarapé, if enacted, this bill could reinforce official acts of intimidation, threats and the silencing of government critics and political opponents while also leading to the criminalisation of social movements and the restriction of fundamental freedoms. Civil society organisations pointed out that the legislation was particularly concerning in a context of the Bolsonaro government’s arbitrary use of criminal legislation against social movements, journalists and opponents. In December 2021, lawmakers attempted to fast-track the bill’s review in the Lower House of Congress but a request for urgent consideration was rejected on 8th December 2021.

In a separate development, new legislation (Law No. 14.197) repealing the National Security Law was enacted on 1st September 2021. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, in August 2021 lawmakers approved a bill replacing the dictatorship-era legislation with new provisions on crimes against the democratic rule of law. President Bolsonaro vetoed five articles of the legislation’s text, including provisions establishing penalties for the mass spread of false information and for preventing the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly. The government justified the latter veto, which seeks to shield security agents who engage in the repression of protests, saying the law would hinder police work during demonstrations.

In a positive development, a law (N. 14.215) providing more certainty to partnerships between civil society and the public administration in the context of the COVID-10 pandemic was enacted on 7th October 2021. The proposal was a collaboration between the Platform for a New Regulatory Framework for Civil Society Organisations (MROSC) and the Parliamentary Mixed Front in Defence of Civil Society Organizations (FPOSC). The legislation simplifies processes and allows for the possibility of re-negotiating and adjusting the transfer of funds, CSO goals, results, and extensions of performance periods during the pandemic. President Bolsonaro had vetoed the bill in its entirety in July 2021, but the veto was overturned in Congress on 27th September 2021.

Peaceful Assembly

Demonstrations on Black Consciousness Day

On 20th November 2021, on the 50th anniversary of Black Consciousness Day in Brazil, racial justice activists marched and demonstrated on the streets of São Paulo, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Belém, Fortaleza and dozens of other cities. Under the motto “No mediation with those who kill us,” the Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights) called on people to join the various actions celebrating the mobilisation of Black movements and demanding an end to systemic racial oppression. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, the demonstrators performed the ritual washing of local statues of Zumbi dos Palmares, a 17th century leader of the resistance to slavery of people of African origin and descent in Brazil.

Thousands joined a march in São Paulo, where demonstrators highlighted Black Brazilians’ ancestral heritage and resistance, demanded justice for those killed by police or in violent incidents and denounced racism in societal systems. Demonstrators held signs with messages such as “full cemeteries, empty fridges” and banners recalling COVID-19 victims in the country. “I think it’s important that my son sees a strong demonstration of Black peoples on the streets, showing their music, their strength. I want my son to feel represented, to recognise himself in society. We still have a long struggle to ensure that this happens as it should,” said a mother who joined the march in São Paulo with her 7-year-old son.

Pro- and anti-government mobilisations

On 7th September 2021, Brazil’s Independence Day, tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters joined demonstrations in different cities of Brazil after the president called on them to rally in a show of force. In the weeks preceding the demonstrations, President Bolsonaro, whose approval ratings decreased in 2021, made several statements indicating a potential rupture with democratic rule in the face of upcoming elections in 2022. In that regard, the demonstrations were seen as a way to fire up Bolsonaro’s base in the face of a flagging economy, soaring unemployment and inflation and a series of investigations targeting him and his inner circle.

Anti-government protesters also took to the streets in September and October 2021. On 12th September 2021, hundreds of Brazilians protested against President Bolsonaro and demanded his impeachment. The street protests were convened by conservative-leaning organisations such as Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement - MBL), which in 2016 joined calls for the impeachment of Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff. The demonstrations called on people to unite behind an alternative candidate instead of far-right Bolsonaro or left-wing former president Lula in upcoming elections.

On 2nd October 2021, thousands joined protests in major cities across Brazil to call for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. These protests were organised by opposition parties and trade unions, taking place exactly one year ahead of the 2022 elections. Large crowds gathered in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília and dozens of other towns and cities as part of the “Bolsonaro Out National Campaign,” backed by a dozen left-wing political parties and labour groups. Protesters chanted “Out Bolsonaro, out Bolsonaro” and carried signs with messages such as “Bolsonaro Must Leave, Impeachment Now.” In addition to highlighting the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrators also protested surging inflation and high fuel prices.


Attacks and harassment of journalists

On 12th December 2021, security guards and supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro physically assaulted reporters from TV Bahia and TV Aratu in the city of Itamaraju, Bahia state. The assault happened as Bolsonaro arrived on a visit to the town, and his security guards used force to stop the journalists from approaching. A woman journalist was allegedly held in a headlock by a guard, while another was slapped in the face. Video of the incident shows a guard threatening journalists. Bolsonaro’s security guards also assaulted journalists who were covering the president’s participation in a G20 meeting in Italy at the end of October 2021. At the time, a broadcast journalist was punched in the stomach and another had their equipment damaged. In yet another case, on 18th October 2021, a journalist was attacked by a Bolsonaro supporter in Aparecida, São Paulo, as he covered a local visit by Bolsonaro.

Separately, on 18th October 2021, law professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and columnist for Folha de São Paulo newspaper, Conrado Hübner Mendes, was summoned by the federal police to testify in a criminal investigation over a newspaper column he wrote criticising a Supreme Court justice. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Hübner Mendes has faced two separate criminal complaints from authorities for alleged defamation – in cases criticised by civil society as threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom.

In one more incident, on 9th September 2021 Jerry de Oliveira, presenter and coordinator of community radio station Rádio Noroeste FM, was threatened by gunmen who told him to “stop saying bad things about Bolsonaro.” The journalist was later followed by a vehicle, and an armed man made a death threat against him. The reporter also faced a smear campaign and online threats. Rádio Noroeste FM, based in Campinas in the state of São Paulo, is known for its frequent criticism of President Bolsonaro and its defence of human rights. De Oliveira filed a complaint with the state police and reported the threats to Brazil’s Federal Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists (PPDDH). A person suspected of having intimidated him was taken to a police station to give a statement. Security cameras were also installed in the journalist’s home and the radio station.

Lawmaker charged for journalist’s abduction

On 1st October 2021, Roraima’s state assembly representative Jalser Renier was charged with masterminding the abduction of journalist Romano dos Anjos in October 2020. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the reporter and Imperial TV anchor was kidnapped, held for several hours and tortured on 26th October 2020. Dos Anjos had denounced irregularities and corruption affecting Roraima’s management of federal funds for combatting COVID-19.

As reported by Reporters Without Borders, the police said they had evidence proving that the abduction was “carried out directly by the military police in association with the Roraima legislative assembly and under the orders of Jalser Renier, the assembly’s speaker at the time.” A police investigation in the case uncovered an alleged criminal operation specialised in espionage, intelligence and private security, which was coordinated by Renier and involved members of the military police and the army. One of the members of the group allegedly also threatened the Roraima state governor in an attempt to stop the investigation into the journalist’s abduction.

Pandemic data blackout

Civil society organisations warned of the issues arising from lack of official data on COVID-19 cases and demanded transparency from public health authorities. The Brazilian Health Ministry’s reports on COVID-19 cases were affected by a hacking attack on the health service’s database on 11th December 2021. The attack affected the systems that stored Brazilians’ COVID-19 vaccination cards as well as the systems used to consolidate data on flu and coronavirus cases registered by State and municipal authorities, leading civil society and news outlets to call it a “data blackout”. Health institute Fiocruz said the lack of data was extremely serious and meant that the country was defining its public health policy since early December with “little or no evidence.”

The Fórum de Direito de Acesso a Informações Públicas (Forum on the Right of Access to Public Information) said the situation highlighted the Health Ministry’s “incompetence and negligence”, because a month after the attack these systems had not been re-established. They said the Ministry had failed to provide information on the impact of the attack on the National Network of Health Data, which not only affects the collection of epidemiological data but also compromises millions of people’s private information. In a statement published on 11th January 2021, the Forum said:

“The blackout of official data is even more critical because it coincides with a significant increase in cases of COVID-19 and influenza syndromes in the country, as pointed out by data from pharmacies, laboratories, private hospitals and municipal departments. It is unacceptable that the country is at the mercy of such incompetence and negligence on the part of the federal government.”

Community radios at risk

In November 2021, community radio association Associação Brasileira de Rádios Comunitárias warned that a decision taken by the National Telecommunications Agency (ANATEL) earlier in the year could marginalise community radio stations, reducing their reach and silencing their voices. The decision by the regulator would imply the migration of these stations’ frequencies to the extended band, which experts say wouldn’t work on most radio equipment.