Brazilian government withdraws autonomy of state broadcaster EBC and tries again to fire its president

The Brazilian government changed the structure, as well as the rules of appointment and dismissal of presidents, of the Brazilian Communications Company, which runs a news agency and broadcasting stations of the federal government. The changes get rid of the Board of Trustees that had been created to give the EBC autonomy from the government.

Along with the changes published on Sept. 2, the government of President Michel Temer dismissed journalist Ricardo Melo for the second time and named Laerte Rímoli as president of the EBC. However, they have reversed that decision.

The first time that Temer’s government replaced Melo, he was reappointed by the Supreme Court because legislation gave autonomy to EBC and its Board of Trustees. This time, the dismissal was annulled before the Supreme Court could comment.

Still, according to columnist Mônica Bergamo of Folha de S. Paulo, Rímoli is receiving the salary of the president of EBC, although he is not holding the office. The newspaper said he received R $29,757 (about USD $9,313) in June and R $21,895 (about USD $6,852) in August. Rimolí told Folha that there is nothing irregular with the payment. “I would not receive it if I were fired. I was suspended [because of the injunction]. I was president, as I will be again soon. I am Dilma of the EBC,” he said.

The measures that change the structure of the EBC were signed by Eliseu Padilha, chief of staff to the president, and by Rodrigo Maia, president of the Chamber of Deputies, who took over the presidency as Temer traveled to China.

With the changes, the president of EBC can be appointed and dismissed by the President at any time. Before, members of the Executive Board could only be removed if they received two votes of no confidence from the Board of Trustees, as was required by law 11.652, which created the state entity.

The legislation, repealed by a provisional measure (temporary law enacted by the executive without congressional approval), was intended to ensure a certain independence to state broadcasters, even if presidents change.

The provisional measure also established that the term of the EBC President would be four years, without the possible of renewal, as occurred before. Another change, published by decree, is that the EBC is no longer subordinate to the Secretariat of Social Communication of the Presidency but is linked to the Chief of Staff.

The composition of the Board of Director also changed. It will now be formed by a CEO and a member appointed by the Chief of Staff to the Presidency, who will hold the presidency of the council. In addition, the Ministries of Education; Culture; Planning, Development and Management; Science, Technology and Communications; will be able to appoint one member each to the council, which will also include a representative of the employees of the EBC.

Among the measures, the termination of the Trustee Council was one of the most controversial. The former president of the council, Rita Freire, said that the dismissal of the body is “very serious,” according to an article published by EBC on the same day the charges were announced. The text, however, was later unpublished.

According to the report, the trustee board, made up of 22 members, including representatives of civil society, had the role of ensuring the principles and autonomy of the EBC.

“The board has a deliberative and advisory character and gives opinions on the editorial line and programming of the outlets,” the report said.

“This shows that we are indeed living in a state of emergency in the country, where the measures are taken in total disregard to the rights of the people and the existence of a democratic society. No right to communication without public communication, we do not have the possibility of a democratic society,” Freira said, to the EBC.

According to a column in Folha, the lawyer for journalist Ricardo Melo, Marco Aurélio de Carvalho, said he will file a lawsuit before the Supreme Court for the government to keep the trustee board of the EBC.

Article 19 Brazil, an organization defending freedom of expression, released a statement in which it repudiated the changes, especially the termination of the board.

“[The elimination of the board] in practice means the end of the public nature of the company. The measure violates Article 223 of the Constitution, which provides for the existence of a complementary relationship between the public, private and state systems in Brazilian broadcasting, further harming international standards that ensure that public broadcasters should be protected from any political interference,” said Article 19 Brazil.

According to the organization, the board had the task of ensuring diversity and plurality in coverage, and also served as a means to preserve the autonomy of the entity in relation to the government.

“The MP 744 [the provisional measure] is an affront to the democratic principles of pluralism and diversity in the media, as public communication systems are a key tool to express the diverse voices of society. Such a task can only be performed by management independent of the government, a fact that is impossible with the extinction of the Board of Trustees. For this reason, Article 19 regrets the decision of the presidency, which is a serious injury not only to public communication, but also to freedom of expression in the country,” the organization said.

In addition to the set of measures, the government also published on Sept. 2 a note in the Official Gazette regarding Ricardo Melo’s dismissal as chairman of the EBC and the appointment of Laertes Rímoli. On the same day, however, the administration backtracked and issued a decree annulling the measure. According to an article in Folha, the government claimed that the publication of Melo’s firing was a mistake.

Melo’s lawyer, Marco Aurélio de Carvalho, said that the decision, made for the second time, was a demonstration of authoritarianism, according to Folha.

“It’s absolutely an authoritarian measure and shows disrespect of this bionic government to the Supreme Court,” the lawyer said. Also according to the publication, before the government decided to cancel the decree, Melo again approached the Supreme Court to reverse the measure.

This was the second time that the Temer government tried to remove Melo from his post. At first, the change was annulled by order of the Supreme Court for violating the law that assured the president of EBC a term of four years.

In May 2016, a few days after taking over as interim president of Brazil, Temer replaced Melo with Rímoli. Melo had been appointed by then-President Dilma Rousseff days before his firing that came on the heels of the initiation of impeachment proceedings.

According to Folha, Laerte Rímoli participated in the presidential campaign of Aécio Neves, adversary of Dilma Rousseff in the 2014 elections, and headed communications of the Chamber of Deputies under the management of Eduardo Cunha (also an adversary of Rouseff). On the other hand, the party of Rouseff, the PT, was accused of “equipping” the EBC, hiring journalists aligned to the president, according to newspaper Estadão.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.