Don’t shut me up: Bolsonaro on fertile ground to threaten and censor public debate in Brazil

September 9, 2020

On August 23, after being questioned about checks that would have been deposited by Queiroz in the first lady’s account, Bolsonaro threatened a journalist: “My desire is to fill your mouth in the beating. The direct physical threat generated great repercussion and the same question was repeated more than 1 million times in less than 24 hours by Twitter users, reaching the level of the most discussed subject of the platform in Brazil.

However, this was not the president’s first attack on members of the press. According to the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj), in 2019 there was a 54.07% increase in the number of cases of attacks on media outlets and journalists compared to the previous year, totaling 208 records. In 2020, there are already 245 occurrences in the first semester alone.

The multiplication of these attacks is not random. On the contrary, it is “a defined and increasingly well-structured strategy” of the Bolsonario government. What, then, would this strategy be? What are its objectives? And, finally, why should we worry about its consequences?

A structured and organized system

Created in the João Figueiredo government after Law 6.650 of 1979, the Secretariat of Social Communication of the Presidency of the Republic (SECOM) seems to be a key piece for the understanding of one of the authoritarian facets of the current federal government, which would be the suffocation of freedom of expression and its consequences, such as freedom of the press.

SECOM’s performance with sites that disseminate false news is pointed out by the Fake News CPMI report, which suggests that the Secretariat would have spent about 2 million reais in inadequate sites, among them the fake news broadcasters, for the dissemination of advertisements related to social security reform.

As of the release of this report, in a 2019 financial year accounting trial, the TCU showed concern over the Jair Bolsonaro government’s exorbitant spending on advertising and a “possible misuse of purpose in the use of the state apparatus to persecute groups or personalities who, in the exercise of freedom of speech or of the press, are supposedly in opposition to the ruler” according to Justice Bruno Dantas.

The “possibility” glimpsed by the Minister of the TCU, however, must be removed from the sentence, since the deviation of purpose in the use of the state apparatus for persecution of personalities was evident from the Marcelo Adnet case. In a parody of the video released by the Special Secretariat of Culture headed by actor Mário Frias, the humorist satirizes the former actor’s performance and, especially, the “sinister” air of a speech of exaltation of a “National History”, which should value the true heroes of the homeland, in a tone “a la Goebbels”. From this case, SECOM posted a note on his Twitter account stating that the humorist made “little case of Brazilians” by publishing such a video and that Adnet would be “against goodness, love of neighbor, sacrifice for the innocent”.

From this case, it becomes evident that the federal government builds its enemies and, from an official discourse, promotes the persecution of its opponents.

Another mechanism that has been used for this purpose is the National Security Law (LSN). With the wording given by a 1969 decree law, it was one of the legal instruments most used by the military regime to persecute opponents, under the pretext of defending national security and the political and social order. The current text, dating from 1983, maintains a similar logic, dealing with crimes against “territorial integrity and national sovereignty”; “the representative and democratic regime, the Federation and the Rule of Law”; and “the person of the heads of the Union’s powers.

The use of LSN in the democratic context is controversial. Its text is seen as a legacy of the Dictatorship and a kind of guarantee given to the military during the period of democratic transition. In addition, generic terms are used, which open up a wide margin for interpretation and application, favoring the possibility of its use to the detriment of the defendant for political persecution. For these reasons, their revocation was recommended by the National Truth Commission.

Even so, the Bolsonaro government requested several investigations against members of the press based on the violation of this law. In two emblematic cases, Minister André Mendonça requested the Federal Police to open an investigation against columnist Hélio Schwartsman and cartoonist Aroeira for allegedly slandering or defaming the President of the Republic. LSN provides a sentence of 1 to 4 years of imprisonment for this crime.

Obviously, references to LSN after 1988 are not exclusive to Bolsonaro. However, besides the disproportionate nature of the request and the possible penalty applied, it is a concern that the Minister is exceeding his powers by using the Federal Police as an instrument to defend the presidency. The request to open an inquiry against members of the press who presented a position contrary to the government outlines, once again, a mechanism to restrict public debate and persecution of their opponents.

This scenario indicates that it is a structured and organized system, not isolated bravado uttered by the president. The objective of this system is to sow distrust in relation to the work of journalists, avoid accountability to society and maintain control of public debate. In this way, it builds the image not of opponents within the political game, but of common enemies.

This authoritarian facet brings the federal government closer to fascist regimes. As Jason Stanley points out, “a fascist regime has no opponents: it has enemies. And they multiply to the extent that they diverge from the owners of power – who in the same movement also reaffirm their circle of ‘friends’, defined by the degree of unconditional adherence to their principles. From the narrative around the opposition between friends and enemies, violence becomes the only possible form of political dispute, which makes public debate impossible.

Who believes in freedom of expression and the press?

They are not limited to the Executive actions that restrict freedom of expression and the press. Faced with attempts by Bolsonaro and his followers to intimidate and control the press, the institutional response of both the Judiciary and the Legislative has been, at best, dubious. Add to this the use of judicial demands to seek to censor reports and critical voices to those in power, not only at the federal level, but also locally.

More serious is the fact that these demands have been successful in the judiciary. Recently, three prominent cases can be cited: the censorship of Crusoé magazine, which published a report on a possible connection between Dias Toffoli and Marcelo Odebrecht; the censorship of the GGN newspaper, in which all reports on BTG Pactual, a bank created by Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, were ordered off the air; and finally, the censorship prior to Globo, which was judicially banned from showing documents from the investigation of Flávio Bolsonaro and the embezzlement scheme, known as “cracking”.

These examples build a scenario in which, although the right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression are constitutionally provided for, there is no shortage of those willing to sue the judiciary to restrict these rights, as well as those ready to grant such restriction in court.

In this sense, Clarissa Gross’s statement that “freedom of expression in Brazil is not for real” becomes significant. If the 1988 Constitution changed the pattern of public debate from prior censorship to open debate, there is still much uncertainty about what citizens can express without fear of judicial condemnation.

Photograph: Gustavo Bezerra/Fotos Públicas. Brasília-DF, 18/09/2019. Artists, civil society, and parliamentarians during the censorship committee rally never again.

Often, alleging the need to protect the honor of politicians, public figures and even institutions, the Brazilian judiciary grants decisions that reduce the scope of public information and the possibility of citizen control. The Judiciary, which should be activated to protect the restriction of the free flow of information, thus becomes an actor that contributes to the narrowing of the public space for debate.

Faced with a picture of systematic attacks by the Executive on the press, the lax commitment to freedom of expression and the press by the Judiciary contributes to a scenario where threats to free debate, criticism and the exercise of social control find fertile ground in the country.

A scenario that repeats

Despite the rupture and the institutional framework represented by the 1988 Constitution, Jair Bolsonaro’s government brings to light the consequences of an inefficient transitional justice system. The election to the presidency of the Republic of a Federal Congressman who in plenary welcomed the notorious torturer Ustra seems to have raised institutionality to a way of governing with considerable approximation to the military regime.

In this sense, as this text dealt with freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it is worth mentioning a rapprochement, noted by some journalistic vehicles, between Jair Bolsonaro’s “shut up” directed to the press and the “shut up” also directed to the press of General Newton Cruz, who headed the National Information Service (SNI) during the Dictatorship. It is interesting to note and watch both videos, of the current president and the general, to realize that beyond the coincidence of expressions, the harsh tone with the press is very similar in both moments.

By Ana Carolina Rezende Oliveira [1], Júlia Guimarães [2] and Mariana Rezende Oliveira [3].

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[1] Doctoral student in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Master in Law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Researcher associated to CJT – UFMG.

[2] Master of Laws student at Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher Fellow (CAPES). Researcher associated to the CJT-UFMG.

[3] Master’s Degree in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher atassociated to CJT-UFMG.