Daylong suspension of WhatsApp affects journalists and media in Brazil

Due to a judicial order, service of WhatsApp was blocked for one day starting May 2 for about 100 million Brazilians who use the messaging application. The measure had immediate repercussions among journalists who are accustomed to using the application for communication and also on news organizations that use it to distribute information and interact with readers.

Fábio Gusmão, online editor of the newspaper Extra and pioneer in the use of messaging applications as a channel for complaints from readers, said that although there are similar services options, the presence of Brazilian readers is highest in WhatsApp.

"When the blockade began, we posted on social networks remembering that we have other applications such as Viber, Telegram and Snapchat. People use these other applications, but not as much," Gusmão said in an interview with the Knight Center.

In addition to Extra, many other Brazilian news media have adopted instant messaging to distribute newsletters and receive information from readers. FolhaRJTV television news and Estadão use contact channels for messaging applications. During the blockade of Whataspp, Estadão placed a message prominently on their homepage stating that it can also be found in the messaging applications Telegram and MyPush.

The suspension of service also surprised foreign journalists who are in Brazil to cover the Olympics. On the arrival of the Olympic Flame to the country, some professionals reported difficulties transmitting information to their teams abroad, according to the Agency Brazil.

"I'm really surprised that something like this happened at a time like this," said Marisol Choquehanca, a Peruvian reporter with Latina Televisión, to Agency Brazil. "Besides not being able to talk with my team abroad, scheduling interviews with sources for my work is being complicated.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the court decision, pointing out that “blocking access to such a widely used platform is an overreach that violates the open nature of the Internet and disproportionately damages the free flow of information.”

In a statement, CPJ noted that the service interruption disrupts the work of journalists who often use the tool to communicate with sources.

“Journalists in Brazil regularly rely on WhatsApp for their reporting,” said Geoffrey King, CPJ Technology Program Coordinator.

WhatsApp was suspended at 2:00 p.m. local time on May 2 by order of Judge Marcel Montalvão, of the Criminal Court of Lagarto in Sergipe. The popular messaging application resumed operation the next day after a little more than 24 hours off the air. The judge will be investigated for abuse of authority, according to Consultor Jurídico. The site reported that National Inspector of Justice and Judge of the Superior Court, Nancy Andrighi, filed a disciplinary complaint against the magistrate on Tuesday.

The order to block WhatsApp occurred for the same reasoning that led to the request for arrest of vice president of Facebook in March of this year: the company did not provide the Justice messages related to an investigation into drug trafficking. WhatsApp claims that does not have the information that the Federal Police are asking. The details of the case are not known because it was declared a secret of justice.

The application was blocked in December 2015, but service was restored within 12 hours because of an injunction.

The issue saw repercussions on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where the blocking of WhatsApp took first place in trending topics in Brazil.

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.