Brazil : does Lula’s re-election mark the return of the free press ?

For more than four years, former president Jair Bolsonaro fueled a witch hunt against the Brazilian press and its journalists. More than 150 days after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, what has become of the muzzled press? Can we now say that the press is free again in Brazil? L’Œil de la maison des journalistes takes stock. 

In addition to the attacks on the press, Brazil has also suffered attacks on democracy in the broadest sense. On January 8, 2023, just as millions of voters had made their choice for Brazil’s new president, riots broke out in Brasilia, the country’s federal capital, to contest the results.

More than 300 people were arrested that evening, as hundreds of pro-Bolsonaro supporters stormed administrative buildings. 

Traveling in Florida at the time of the riot, Jair Bolsonaro admitted having “accidentally” shared a video disputing the presidential results, galvanizing his supporters.

Numerous criticisms and accusations undermined the press, suspected of having fomented a rigged election with Lula. Since 2018, everything was done to muzzle journalists: online harassment campaigns, insults, denigration of their work…

Brazilian journalist, “enemy of the people”

Born in Rio in 1988, Artur Romeu lived most of his life in the capital, before moving to France between 2013 and 2015 for a master’s degree in humanitarian law. He has been working in the field for 15 years, mainly in Brazil but also throughout Latin America. Hired as an intern at RSF in 2015, Artur took over as head of the office in November 2022.

It’s difficult to have a concrete idea” of the most complicated subjects to cover according to him, as violence against the press existed long before Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency.

Since 2010, Brazil has been the country with the second highest number of journalists killed in Latin America behind Mexico” – 30 people. What did they have in common? They all worked in small and medium-sized towns, covering local and daily news. 

Journalists who are “invisible” in the Brazilian press and the major newsrooms of the southeast, but who remain the first victims of violence and prosecution.

Cyber-harassment has become commonplace for journalists, especially for those who are most popular and most present online.

Photo de Sam McGhee

“The Bolsonaro government has been able to attack the press and create this image of the journalist as the enemy of the people in the collective imagination, and the major networks are particularly targeted.”

In 2022, RSF carried out a survey of journalists facing hate networks: in 3 months, during the election period, the team noted over three million attacks on Twitter (offensive content, insults…). The Bolsonarian government operated a “coup de force to discredit the press and control public debate.” 

A situation that the Lula government is now trying to reverse, thanks in particular to the creation of a national observatory on violence against the press, under the aegis of President Lula.

“However, there are still ‘zones of silence’ for journalists in the country. If we talk about censorship in these areas, for example, people can sometimes find it hard to understand.”

Environment and agriculture, black sheeps of journalism in Brazil

Areas of silence” corroborated by journalist Pierre Le Duff. “In many rural regions of the country, such as the central-west, agriculture and large rural estates are the main sources of wealth and employment.” 

Currently freelancing for several television, radio and online media in Brazil for almost five years, Pierre Le Duff agreed to talk to MDJ. 

According to the journalist, “all the subjects linked to agribusiness, human rights and the environment” are very complicated to cover. Pesticides, water use, deforestation, fires, slave labor… remain mostly taboo.

One of her colleagues had a painful experience of this, “following a report on the historic fires that ravaged the Pantanal in 2020. My colleague received a message from the son of a farmer we had interviewed,” telling her that she and her team would “no longer be able to return to the region.” 

“His father had told us that he used slash-and-burn agriculture, a practice that had been singled out as the main cause of the fires, which had grown to gigantic proportions. It was simple intimidation, received after the publication of our report.” 

However, Pierre Le Duff points to “the murder last year of British journalist Dom Phillips in the Amazon, which reminds us that being a foreigner is no guarantee of protection” in Brazil.

“Anyone who closely investigates subjects as sensitive as criminal activity in the Amazon or other isolated regions of Brazil is potentially putting themselves at risk.”

Polarizing political debate to muzzle the press

Mistrust of the foreign media is also rife: “we are all the more suspected of being biased in our coverage. But those most likely to face hostility from far-right activists, or online harassment, remain journalists from Brazil’s mainstream media, who are also highly critical of Bolsonaro’s government.

Pierre Le Duff nonetheless temporizes, and points out that he has never been personally threatened because he has “rarely covered very sensitive subjects“, such as the elections or Amazonia. 

However, outside of these subjects, “Brazilians are pretty open when it comes to talking to journalists. They have a relaxed relationship with images, which makes things easier for television. But politics, since the 2018 presidential campaign, is a topic that some simply don’t want to talk about.

For many of the country’s citizens, the refusal to speak out is explained “by the fear that their words will be hijacked to serve a left-wing discourse or the interests of the opposing camp.” 

After four years of a mortifying policy against the media, pro-Bolsonaro are “convinced that journalists are all left-wing and anti-Bolsonaro, to the point of abandoning all ethics with the sole aim of damning him. This has been a reality since 2018, and has become even more pronounced during the 2022 presidential campaign.

Woman, journalist and Brazilian: the triple whammy

Franco-Brazilian Bruno Meyerfeld, a freelancer working for Le Monde since 2019, points out that “it’s always more difficult to work on local subjects when you’re Brazilian rather than foreign.” 

In his view, the most complicated topics to cover remain corruption and embezzlement at local level.

Talking about a member of parliament, a councillor or a mayor who embezzles funds or takes part in illegal activity represents a very great risk” for Brazilians, “as does talking about gold mining.” 

But attacking paramilitary organizations and militias proves to be the most dangerous: “the police and military enjoy great impunity in Brazil, especially in Rio“, testifies Bruno Meyerfeld.

Although he has not personally received any threats or pressure, “I have been taken to task by pro-Bolsonaro supporters. Foreign journalists can then be physically threatened.”

In 2019, reporting from the Amazon shortly before the diplomatic crisis between Macron and Bolsonaro, Bruno felt “real hostility from local communities involved in deforestation.” 

Attempts at intimidation and espionage were the order of the day, “but there were no direct threats, just “dangerous” attitudes. In this kind of situation,if you stay, we can’t guarantee what will happen.” 

Bruno Meyerfeld takes the example of an interview with a Bolsonarist elected official in the northeast of the country, who had the slogan “if you move, I’ll shoot“, and stored rifles in his office. His assistant himself carried a Kalashnikov, and a mannequin in bulletproof vest stood in the room. 

Interviewees sometimes put their pistols on the table or display them prominently, especially in Brasilia where there are a lot of weapons,” making the interview that much more anxiety-inducing.

A tension that can lead to the death of foreign journalists, such as Dom Philips on June 5, 2022, but the risk falls particularly on Brazilian journalists, “whose murder can go unnoticed. They don’t have the same protection; we have the status, the nationality and the media to back us up.

An even more terrible situation for the country’s female journalists, in a “very misogynistic” society, where intimidation and marginalization of women are ingrained in the culture. Brazil is one of the countries with the highest number of feminicides, leading to much domestic violence. Journalism is no exception to the rule, where Bruno Meyerfeld observes “a huge difference in treatment.” 

Threatened publicly and physically, they will have lived through hell under the Bolsonaro presidency. The former president and his sons tried to “destroy the lives of two Brazilian journalists“, in particular Patricia Campos Mello, author of an extensive investigation into the Bolsonaro party

Major campaigns of intimidation and online harassment punctuated their daily lives throughout the presidency.

All the obstacles that the Brazilian media players have to overcome do not prevent them from following through on their investigations, nor from helping foreign journalists if need be. For Bruno, the “great generosity” of Brazilian journalists is a reality. 

“They take considerable risks because they are passionate about their profession, and they are aware of the weight of truth in a country with a fragile democracy. They have a much stronger investigative culture than in France, and sometimes they even offer us subjects to help us. There’s no animosity or rancor on their part towards other journalists,” he testifies.

But with the inauguration of President Lula, our interviewee describes “a country that is generally calmer, at the end of a very tough political cycle.” With the hundreds of arrests following the riots of January 8, pro-Bolsonaro “have understood that they risk ending up in prison and that justice can crack down“, leading to less violence in the streets.

However, Brazil still has a long way to go to proclaim the return of a free and independent press: the country still ranks 110th in RSF’s press freedom index, and continues to attack the lives of journalists. It remains to be seen whether the Observatory of Violence against the Press will soon be able to protect reporters and consolidate press freedom.

Maud Baheng Daizey. Translation by Andrea Petitjean.

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