BY Cristina Zahar

Press vows to keep Brazil's Bolsonaro in check

Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign for the Brazilian presidency was notable for its aggressive, right-wing tone, particularly the attacks he made on the media.

Bolsonaro mimicked his US counterpart Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric throughout the campaign, accusing journalists of lying and ignoring his rise in the polls. And he continued his attacks even after being elected on 28 October.

In an interview with INSI member Globo TV, one of the president-elect’s frequent targets, he threatened to cut government advertising from any news outlets that "lie". The government spends hundreds of millions of reais every year on propaganda to promote state-run companies as well as its own work.

“I am totally in favour of freedom of the press,” Bolsonaro told Globo, as reported by Reuters. “But if it’s up to me, press that shamelessly lies will not have any government support.” 

When Bolsonaro attacks and threatens the media he disrespects the Brazilian constitution under which he'll be sworn in on 1 January 2019.

His words against the media are pro-dictatorship and anti-democratic. Journalists are hoping that some of the more extreme things he said during the campaign were just to win the elections. They don’t know if he’ll put them into practice.

During the electoral campaign, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) started monitoring cases of physical violence and virtual harassment against journalists that have taken place since the beginning of this year. So far Abraji has logged 153 cases.

The vast majority of the cases are by Bosonaro supporters (and bots) targeting journalists who they accuse of producing “fake news”. The attacks include hate speech posts as well as revealing personal data and photographs of journalists online.

The most recent example of digital harassment was against Patrícia Campos Mello, an experienced journalist from the daily newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, who wrote an article revealing the massive use of WhatsApp messages funded by illegal resources from companies backing Bolsonaro's campaign. If proven, this would be a breach of campaign finance laws.

Bolsonaro responded with accusations of “fake news” against Folha, and his supporters turned on Mello after the story was published on the newspaper's frontpage. Her WhatsApp account was invaded, messages were erased and her contacts were sent pro-Bolsonaro messages. Her credibility was questioned on social media, false news circulated about her online and she was threatened, particularly on Twitter.

To help journalists fight against virtual harassment, Abraji has produced a digital safety guide with tips to protect social media accounts and legal ways to fight it.

Abraji sees a risk to freedom of expression and freedom of the press with Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president, but we rely on the Brazilian constitution as well as on the country's institutions to keep him in check. If this doesn’t happen then Abraji and civil society organisations will take up the fight.

Keeping public power, particularly the president, in check has always been, and will continue to be, an intrinsic function of journalism. We will not back an authoritarian project without any criticism. This is done in the name of the public interest. The press should always pursue the truth and back freedom, human rights and minorities.

Christina Zahar is the executive secretary at the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji).

Image by AFP