"Unusual." That is how the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR-OAS), Joel Hernández García, described the current moment of freedom of expression in Brazil.
“It seems to me that the Brazilian State and society value freedom of expression as the basis of their democracy. Nor do I have the slightest doubt that there is a solid democratic institution in Brazil to safeguard this right,” he said during a hearing of the IACHR held to discuss complaints of restrictions to freedom of expression in Brazil. “The fact that the commission selected this topic was based on a concern that exists within the commission for what we see as threats, stigmatization of the work of journalists in Brazil.”
The hearing took place on March 6, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during the 175th IACHR hearings. The session was requested by 17 Brazilian and international organizations. Among them are the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its acronym in French).
One of the cases reported was presented by journalist Helena Bertho, from AzMina magazine, an independent publication covering gender issues. She explained that Human Rights Minister Damares Alves’ reaction to a story prompted a series of virtual attacks on the team. The report addressed methods of safe abortion in places and situations where it is legal and was classified as an “apology for crime” by the minister. In addition to the virtual attacks, the magazine is also being prosecuted following a request by Damares Alves to the public prosecutor.
“The simple fact that a federal government ministry took the trouble to make this complaint when any lawyer could conclude that there was no crime scares us. It shows what is at stake is not the law itself, but rather a veiled threat to the media that disseminate information that contradicts the ideology of Brazil's current government,” Bertho said during the hearing.
A video shown during the hearing showed President Jair Bolsonaro's various attacks on journalists. In the images, the sexist accusations against Folha reporter Patrícia Campos Mello, giving the “banana” to journalists covering the Planalto Palace, the comment about a reporter's “terrible homosexual face,” a reference to a possible arrest of U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald from The Intercept Brasil, among others.
"These attacks contribute to strengthen disinformation strategies used by members of the government, hurting the population's right to access information about the Brazilian state and public policies," said journalist Renata Mielli, general coordinator of the National Forum for Democratization of Communication (FNDC) and general secretary of the Barão de Itararé Alternative Media Studies Center.
Margarette May Macaulay, rapporteur on the Rights of Women and on the Rights of Persons of African Descent to the OAS, said that it is worrying when the highest authority in the state makes comments that are "disparaging, disrespectful and defamatory" against a group of professionals and women.
“This is a direct contradiction and violation of their rights and the duty of the president as the head of the state to be the leader of all of those showing respect for the constitution and the rights of citizens. When the president says things like that, other people in the country take it as a license to treat women in this disrespectful manner. And that’s not good for their safety and security,” she said.
Edison Lanza, special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the IACHR, demanded explanations about the rhetoric of government officials against the press in general and in particular, addressed to journalists such as Patrícia Campos Mello and Glenn Greenwald.
“The policy of protection will not be complete or will not be completely effective if it is not accompanied by a policy of prevention. And the policy of prevention has to do with public recognition of the work of journalists. (...) There is no effective policy of protection if you say permanently and systematically that the press is corrupt, [it produces] false news. This creates a greater risk of violence and exposes journalists and the media to violence,” Lanza said.
The rapporteur also said that he himself was the target of virtual harassment and threats from Brazilians on Twitter when the commission published a condemnation of the attacks on Campos Mello.
Condeno abominable descalificación del diputado @BolsonaroSP a la periodista @camposmello basada en estereotipos de género. Para socavar su excelente investigación sobre inyección de “fake news” en campaña #Brasil. No voy a reproducir ataque. Lean aquí: https://t.co/Ng9cOk4nva
— Edison Lanza (@EdisonLanza) February 12, 2020
What the government said
Government officials present at the hearing represented bodies such as the ministries of Women, Family and Human Rights, of Justice and Public Security, and of Foreign Affairs, in addition to the Brazil Communication Company. In their statements, they reaffirmed the State's commitment to freedom of expression and the protection of threatened journalists.
Regarding the case of Glenn Greenwald, the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Daniel Leão, said that the Federal Police concluded that there was no evidence of crime by the journalist, but the public prosecutor decided to file a complaint “in the exercise of its functional independence.”
“The complaint was not accepted by the Federal Justice in light of a decision by the Supreme Federal Court that considered Glenn Greenwald's journalistic activity not liable to criminal prosecution. This demonstrates that Brazilian institutions act with autonomy and independence in safeguarding human rights,” Leão said.
The secretary of Global Protection of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, Alexandre Magno, highlighted the publication, in early March, of the second edition of the booklet Aristeu Guida da Silva for the protection of human rights of journalists and other communicators, following a recommendation of the IACHR. The name of the booklet refers to the journalist who was murdered on May 12, 1995. Four years earlier, he had founded “Gazeta de São Fidélis,” a newspaper that routinely divulged cases of corruption involving politicians from the municipality of 37 thousand inhabitants of the interior of Rio.
“The federal government does not censor. The president expresses differences with the press, but these differences are part of the democratic game. We reaffirm our commitment to freedom of expression and the press. The press daily makes all the criticisms, all the attacks it finds pertinent and there is no censorship initiative on the part of the government,” Magno said.
In turn, journalist Juliana Fonteles, from Abraji, contested the clarifications provided by government representatives. She said the president's hostility toward the press endorses this behavior at all levels of government.
“The government chose the press as the enemy, and when it does, it chooses democracy as the enemy. Regarding the booklet, it seems to be a mere argumentative device for this audience because it does not show concrete actions by the State in relation to the valorization of journalism. One of the topics in the booklet is to make public speeches that contribute to reducing violence against journalists, and it is the exact opposite of what the Executive and other powers have been doing,” Fonteles said.