A physical assault on reporters covering President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to the state of Bahia has renewed accusations that the leader’s own words and actions, as well as those of his family and supporters, have fostered a hostile environment for the press.
On Dec. 12, his security team and supporters attacked reporters from TV Bahia who were covering the president’s visit to Itamaraju. This comes on the heels of an incident in Rome, Italy, last month when a security guard punched a Globo correspondent in the stomach as he attempted to ask Bolsonaro a question.
Then, the Sustainability Network, a small party in the Brazilian political system, filed a petition with the Supreme Courtcalling for the Presidency to guarantee both the press’ work and the integrity of professional’s covering Bolsonaro, as reported by UOL.
"One more day cannot be tolerated in which the Head of State and Government – who should act to preserve the proper performance of the press and ensure the guarantee of the fundamental rights of the Brazilian people recorded in our Magna Carta – encourages and allows, for through their security guards and supporters, physical aggressions against press professionals,” the petition read.
It also called for Bolsonaro to be prevented from carrying out or encouraging verbal or physical attacks on the press, or be fined, UOL added.
Attorney General Augusto Aras argues against the Supreme Court accepting the case due to procedural issues.
Brazil is ranked 111th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its acronym in French) due in part to a “climate of hate and suspicion fed by Bolsonaro.”
“Broadly, what he’s doing is really undermining the public's trust in this entire industry and in the information that they're getting,” Natalie Southwick, Latin America and Caribbean Program Coordinator for the nonprofit organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “You're sowing doubt and trying to position yourself as the authority of what the truth is, and that's incredibly dangerous when you have leaders who are not honest and leaders who want to control the narrative.”
According to an RSF investigation of the speech of the Bolsonaro family, ministers, vice president and special secretariat for social communication, there were at least 580 attacks on the press in 2020. It added that 85 percent came from the President and his three sons who hold elected positions, and that “social media are the main channel used by the ‘Bolsonaro System’ to harass journalists.” RSF describes the “Bolsonaro System” as the persistent attacks on journalists and the media in general by Bolsonaro, his colleagues, and his supporters.
RSF also found sexist and misogynistic attacks directed at women journalists to be a hallmark of the “Bolsonaro System,” leading to female reporters being subjected to “a sickening environment of online smear campaigns by Bolsonaro supporters,” according to its January 2021 report.
“If you have a pro-Bolsonaro protest and a journalist is just doing their job by covering it, sometimes his supporters can become violent,” Cristina Zahar, executive secretary of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), told LJR. “However, I would say that physical attacks have migrated to online attacks, where you can intimidate the journalist. It’s even worse if you’re a woman, because they don’t only try to attack your job, they say bad things about your hair and body. They say that you’re stupid, and that you’re a whore.”
“I don't think it's a coincidence that Bolsonaro often goes after female journalists, because we're talking about these contexts of machismo where women reporting on men is a threat, and women daring to speak up and be critical is already a threat,” Southwick said.
RSF reported in early 2021 that Bolsonaro’s hostility reflected “the way that he, his family and his immediate circle have, in the past year, refined a set of practices designed to discredit the media and silence critical and independent journalists, who they regard as enemies of the state.”
“We saw, after Bolsonaro took power, that he was going to do the same thing that Trump did in the United States by making the press public enemy number one,” Zahar said. “Since he took power in January 2019, we’ve seen that there have been an increase of attacks against journalists and media outlets.”
According to a September 2021 survey by RSF and ITS-Rio (Rio de Janeiro Institute for Technology and Society), an analysis of half a million tweets posted from March 14 to June 13 revealed that Bolsonaro supporters are the primary users of malicious hashtags directed towards the media. The primary targets of the tweets were media outlets that are outspoken critics of the government, and female journalists.
“I feel like it’s an ant's job,” Zahar said. “We are a lot of ants working together against the big guy, but I still think it's worth it. It’s better than seeing what is happening and not moving a finger.”
Mars Salazar, the author of this article, is a student at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed this post as part of the course "Reporting Latin America."