Strategic disinformation: Covid-19 data censorship and authoritarian upsurge in Brazil

June 17, 2020

On 5 June, the moment wherein the Coronavirus death toll surpassed 35 000 in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s government adopted a new PR strategy vis-à-vis the official pandemic figures in the country.

At odds with the modus operandi adopted thus far (from the onset of the pandemic), the Health Ministry has started issuing communiqués disclosing only confirmed cases from the last 24 hours, neglecting to reveal the extent of contamination by not divulging the total number of confirmed cases and related deaths.

This shift in strategy gave rise to groundswell and heightened insecurity on Covid-19 numbers, further aggravated by Federal Government’s antithetical stance on the directives set by the World Health Organisation. Disinformation peaked the following Sunday when two tallies given by the Federal Government, on the same day, differed by 857 counts of Coronavirus-related deaths. This culminated, on the evening of 8 June, in Alexandre de Moraes, Minister of the Federal Supreme Court, issuing an injunction ordering that aggregate statistics be reinstated on official web portals.

Nevertheless, even though the aforementioned shift was short-lived, it wasn’t the first time that the Federal Government, by design, has thwarted public access to Covid-19 information.

In order to avoid broadcasting the growing number of cases in news outlets with substantial viewership, the pandemic’s daily bulletin was bumped from prime-time slots: from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and finally to 11 p.m. When questioned about this, President Jair Bolsonaro told journalists that, to paraphrase, the National News was done for.

Said government omission has led to widespread criticism from officials, media outlets and specialists, all of whom emphasise the need for data transparency to overcome the pandemic.

Which begs several questions: even if it’s just temporarily, what does data censorship mean for democracy at large? In what way can this censorship be likened to the actions of dictatorships? Can strategic disinformation be seen as a stepping stone to the government’s authoritarian climb?

Openness and transparency as pillars of Democracy

Concealing information of public interest, relating to Covid-19 for instance, is unconstitutional to say the least and out of keeping with the Brazilian legal system. Article 37 of the Constitution (1988) outlines the five key principles in Brazilian public administration, to wit: “legality” (Rule of Law / supremacy of law), “impersonality” (non-discrimination / impartiality / neutrality), “morality” (good governance / fairness / integrity / disinterestedness / probity), “publicity” (openness / transparency) and “efficiency” (good administration).

Constitutional principles (including the implicit ones), e.g. legal norms, should be upheld at all costs, failure to do so could set the stage for high crimes and misdemeanours charges for Brazilian public servants (couched “crimes of responsibility”). Section 3, subsection II, of said Article enshrines, on behalf of the public, the right-to-know and access government-held information.

Disobeying the principle of openness sets off a chain reaction laying waste to the underpinning of other constitutional principles, after all, how is one supposed to get a handle on the pandemic without transparency? Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the Brazilian administration has far-reaching jurisdiction (federal, state and municipal tiers). With that in mind, the principle of openness also serves as a booster of sorts, laying the foundation for inter-tier integration, streamlining public policy coordination and implementation.

Article 49, section X, of the Constitution grants exclusive oversight power to National Congress of the Executive branch, including outgrowths from indirect administration. Therefore, data concealment carried out by Bolsonaro’s government upsets the system of checks and balances because it handicaps the Legislative Branch’s ability to fulfil its constitutional prerogative of overseeing the Executive Branch.

One can’t stress enough that in a fully fledged democracy, whereby the sovereign state is bound unto the law, the principles of transparency and openness allow for the people to hold representatives accountable and check state power, thus, exercising their democratic prerogative of full citizenship.

Parenthetically, Law nº 1.079/1950 outlines the grounds for high crimes and misdemeanours liability (couched “crimes of responsibility”) in Brazil, to paraphrase: public officials that interfere with or exert undue influence on i) the separation of powers; ii) the exercise of political, individual and social rights; iii) administrative probity, are liable for “crimes of responsibility”, among other offences.

A past that ceases to pass

The aforementioned constitutional mechanisms provide the chief support system for a sovereign democratic state, wherein any infringement paves the way for democratic backsliding.

The authoritarian upsurge fuelled by President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has a deep-seated history: his penchant for the infamous Brilhante Ustra (Brazilian colonel accused of multiple counts of torture); his participation in anti-democratic rallies; his attacks on the press; and now, the concealment of pandemic-related data shows an egregious alignment with the not-too-distant past.

The Brazil of the 1970s was branded, by the then press, as an era of general splendour and a sign of the times. The then champion of the World Cup boasted of an “economic miracle” and “pharaonic construction works”, such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway and the Rio–Niterói Bridge (President Costa and Silva Bridge). Nevertheless, covers of media outlets were taken over by poems and cooking recipes in lieu of censored news. Moreover, one can’t ignore a regime engrossed with its own self-image, disseminating behavioural patterns through official government propaganda manufactured by the Public Relations Committee.

Be that as it may, the reality that wasn’t being paraded in the press was the Brazil of the “Years of Lead”, a period rife with repression and political violence fed by Institutional Act Number Five (AI-5), decreed by the civic-military dictatorship from 1968 onwards. If ever there was an inkling of regime continuity or “national security” being at stake, say by protest art, then it’d be subject to censorship.

Control over media outlets served, above all, to conceal the regime’s dodgy goings-on behind the scenes. A case in point is the meningitis epidemic that broke out in the first half of the 1970s. According to Catarina Schneider, the media remained tight-lipped on the matter and government altogether denied the existence of an epidemic. It was only after its peak in 1974 that the façade faltered and the cover-up crumbled.

At which point the delayed and ineffective response to the crisis, prompted by misinformation, had already reached breaking point, wreaking havoc. This situation, that could have been turned on its head had the military government been honest with its people, resulted in mismanagement of the national health crisis strategy, including, but not limited to, delayed vaccine purchases and health worker training, worsening tenfold the disease spread.

According to O Globo (The Globe newspaper), roughly 2500 people died in São Paulo from the meningitis outbreak of 1974. Misinformation had led to dozens of unwarranted deaths, made worse by the fact that, for the most part, people were armed with nothing but their wits to face the disease. By the end of the epidemic in 1976, six years after the initial wave, there were forty thousand registered cases in São Paulo state.

Then, it comes as no surprise that when a National Immunisation Campaign surfaced in 1975, it was received with suspicion by the public because non-existent government transparency led to spillover fostering a lack of credibility towards health workers. By this point, the military government had been targeted with criticism due to illegalities in public administration and contracts, for instance, regarding medication expenditures and invoices that weren’t adding up.

A recently published exposé reveals government whitewashing of the meningitis epidemic. Mailshot sent by Federal Police’s Communication Services, to Regional Superintendents and Federal Police Stations, prohibited the release of data relating to the epidemic, including the amount of vaccine imports.

A few media headlines of the time, “the epidemic of silence” and the “disinformation epidemic”, mirror the current political climate in Brazil. Although the data cover-up in 2020 isn’t akin to the 1974 ordeal and can’t be construed as a symptom of clear-cut censorship, still, at any rate, it handicaps the decision-making process necessary to ensure that Covid-19 cases are kept to a bare minimum. More than ever, one must heed the warning signs of overlap between the current state of affairs and obscurantist political agendas in times past.

Like many a transitional justice mechanism, the Constitution (1988), to all intents and purposes, exists to widen the schism between authoritarian practices of former times and current flirtations with democratic deviance. That being said, de jure proviso (i.e. the Constitution) in and of itself has proven unfit to invoke the thicker regulation needed for de facto compliance in Bolsonaro’s government. Just as the latter lends authority to autocratic and authoritarian encroachment, day by day, so too must we pursue the democratic cause, day by day.

Written by Ana Paula Lasmar Corrêa [1], Julia Ester de Paula [2], Júlia Guimarães [3] and Laura Teixeira [4]. Translation: Karoline Silva [5]

For more information:

[1] Master’s Degree Student in Law at FDSM. CAPES scholarship holder. Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[2] PhD Candidate in Social Communication at UFMG. Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[3] Master’s Degree Student in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. CAPES scholarship holder. Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[4] Undergraduate reading Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT/UFMG).

[5] Shaping Horizons (Administrative Team & Global Editor) – University of Cambridge (UK). Undergraduate researcher in umbrella project co-funded by the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence – Erasmus+ (UFMG – Brazil); supervised by the JMCE’s Chair. Reading undergraduate Law, international studies minor; former undergraduate in Mathematics (UFMG).