Assault, robbery and death threats: Journalists are attacked by Bolsonarists while covering invasion and vandalism of government buildings in Brasilia, Brazil

Thousands of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invaded and vandalized the premises of the National Congress, the Presidency of the Republic and the Supreme Court (STF, by its Portuguese acronym) in Brasilia, the country's capital, on Jan. 8. Several journalists were assaulted and threatened while covering the terrorist acts, as most of the Brazilian press and political class have been calling this Sunday's events. The acts were perpetrated by coup-plotting Bolsonarists, who since Oct. 30, 2022 have promoted rioting throughout the country because they do not accept Bolsonaro's defeat in the presidential election, which was won by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office as president of Brazil on Jan. 1, 2023.

The Union of Professional Journalists of the Federal District (SJPDF) has so far collected 12 cases of journalists who were assaulted, robbed and threatened while doing their work. In at least two cases, police officers refused to help journalists.

A reporter from the newspaper O Tempo gave a first person account of what he saw inside the National Congress and the aggressions he suffered. According to him, whose identity was withheld by the newspaper, there was no police resistance when the coup plotters entered the Congress. He followed them from the street to inside the building, and was approached by some of them for not being "dressed as a patriot," carrying symbols related to the Brazilian flag or the Brazilian Army.

"They stole my badge. They said they were going to break it. They took my wallet, they took my documents. They took my money, twenty reais [about US $4]. That was all I had. They took my cell phone. They kept repeating that I was an 'infiltrated petista.' [member of PT, Lula’s party] I answered that I wasn't, that I was there on business. Then they pointed a gun to my waist, saying that I was going to die. Another pointed a gun to my ear and said there was another gun on my back. I felt something, like a small barrel. And they kept swearing at me. They used a lot of swear words. I started to beg for my life. I used various arguments. I certainly used unrelated words. I was in a panic. Nothing could convince them to let me go. They said I’d never get out of there," the reporter said.

He said he left the National Congress while receiving punches and kicks. He said he asked for help from police officers outside the building, who said they could do nothing for him.

O Tempo published an audio version of the reporter's account with images of the vandalism in Congress:

Journalist Marina Dias, who was covering the terrorist acts for the Washington Post, was also assaulted. "I was surrounded, kicked, pushed, insulted. They broke my glasses, pulled my hair, tried to take my cell phone. These people must be punished. This is a crime," she wrote on Twitter. According to the account of the aggression published in the newspaper, "a Navy officer entered the crowd and pulled her" out of the group that was assaulting her.

A reporter from the website Poder360 witnessed the assault on Dias and reported that a protester confirmed "that she had taken the reporter's glasses, broke them with her bare hands, and then said that the group should kill the professional.”

"The violence of this incident scared even other attending protesters who came nearby to look at the situation and rebuked the group surrounding the journalist saying they should not kill her. The reporter was taken away by security forces, very frightened and crying," according to the website, which recorded a video of Dias' assault.

Poder360 photojournalist Sérgio Lima was also assaulted while recording the events in front of the STF building. Bolsonaristas surrounded Lima and tried to take his memory cards, without success, the site reported.

A photojournalist from the Metrópoles website, whose identity was not revealed, was also kicked and punched and had her equipment stolen. She said she was identified as a media worker by a Bolsonarist and then surrounded by about 10 men. "They gathered around me shouting and swearing. I tried to get out of there, but they punched me in the stomach and grabbed my equipment while kicking me," she said. They demanded that she hand over her cell phone and her camera's memory card, and tried to prevent her from leaving the scene. "I had to dodge them to get out of there," she said.

Photojournalist Pedro Ladeira, from Folha de S. Paulo, was kicked, pushed and had his equipment stolen in front of the Planalto Palace, seat of the Presidency, he told the newspaper. He said he was surrounded by six men and, while he was being assaulted by them, an older woman who accompanied the group managed to pull part of his equipment, a Canon DX camera and a lens. "While they were assaulting me, they were saying that they were there to take Brazil, and that I was there 'to mess with them' because I was a photographer," Ladeira said.

According to SJPDF, in addition to the cases cited above, a reporter from Rádio Jovem Pan was cursed at and followed while leaving the area, and a man tried to open the door of her car and pointed a gun at her; a reporter from TV Band had his cell phone destroyed while recording the events on video; a reporter from Agencia France Presse had his equipment and cell phone stolen and was assaulted; a photojournalist from Reuters had his equipment and cell phone stolen; a reporter from Agência Brasil had his badge pulled from his back and his neck bruised; a journalist who was recording the events for the portal Brasil 247 was threatened and had to delete the images on her cell phone, and a policeman pointed a rifle at her when she asked for help; and a reporter from Anadolu Agency, Turkey, was slapped in the face while covering the vandalism at the Planalto Palace.

‘A crime against democracy’

Several organizations publicly condemned the terrorist acts and assaults on press workers covering violence in Brasilia on Sunday.

"The SJPDF is in solidarity with all professionals and demands from the security forces of the DF [Federal District] effective actions so that something like this never happens again. We also demand that [news] companies adopt protective measures, reinforce the teams and individual protection equipment, so that the professionals can carry out their work safely," the union said.

"Brazilian journalists, in the exercise of their professional work, have been victims of intimidation and assaults by members and supporters of this violent and anti-democratic political group (...) We demand an investigation and rigorous punishment of those responsible for this serious attack on Brazilian democracy, including their sponsors and leaders. We also issue an alert about the need for security forces to combat the curtailment of the work of journalists, recurrent victims of the wave of violence of the Bolsonarist hordes," the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj) said in a statement published on Jan. 8th.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and the Association of Educational Journalists (Jeduca) published a joint statement in repudiation of "attacks on journalists who were only fulfilling their role of following and reporting on these events that threaten Brazilian democracy.”

The statement highlighted that Abraji, in partnership with Fenaj, registered 77 attacks of political violence against the press between Oct. 30, 2022, when the unrest promoted by coup plotters began, and January 6, 2023.

"Abraji has located, in Bolsonarist message groups, threats of invasion also to news outlets as a way to coerce, constrain, and prevent the exercise of journalism. The freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed and a free and safe journalism is fundamental to maintain a democratic rule of law," the organizations said.

The National Association of Newspapers (ANJ) stated in a note that "freedom of the press is inherent to the democratic rule of law, which cannot tolerate or coexist with rioting and vandalism." ANJ demanded "that the security forces take a firm stand against these aggressions and attacks to freedom of the press and democracy.”

The Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (ABERT) said it is "the omission of the Federal District government in protecting the Three Powers of the Republic and ensuring the safety of the press on the city streets carrying out complex coverage is inconceivable," according to a statement published on its website.

"The invasions and acts of vandalism of public buildings, as well as the attacks on communication professionals are an affront to democracy and the Brazilian Constitution. ABERT calls for the responsible authorities to carry out a rigorous investigation of the facts, identifying and punishing the criminals," the association said.

The Brazilian Press Association (ABI) said in a statement that "it vehemently repudiates such acts of terrorism and vandalism and regrets that the police and security forces did not acted to prevent such violence against public property and democracy."