Long before one of their photographers was harassed on election night in Brazil, the editors at Fortaleza newspaper O Povo were meeting with their readers and staff to discuss the increasingly polarized environment and how to deal with it.
The October 28 incident in which a photographer was pushed and manhandled by supporters of newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro served only to confirm what they already knew: the climate for reporters was heating up and, with a peevish extreme-right president in office, it was unlikely to cool down any time soon.
“For two months before the election we were having constant discussions,” O Povo’s managing editor Ana Naddaf told CPJ. “We were meeting with readers in public forums and we were giving presentations to reporters, especially those that cover politics, about how best to use social media, how to spot fake news, and how to cover politics.”
“We were getting a lot of demands, much more than normal, from readers questioning our stance, our headlines, the way we covered stories. It peaked during the election month [October] but we think it will continue for a good time. The press in general is preparing to be taken to task.”
The hostile atmosphere cooled during the transition period between Bolsonaro’s election and lead up to his January 1 inauguration. But the vehement campaigns ran by all sides and the effects of Bolsonaro railing repeatedly about “fake news” have left an indelible mark. As threats and violence against the press mounted, CPJ and other rights organizations called on the electoral candidates to tone down their rhetoric.
As of December 19, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) had recorded 155 cases of harassment or physical violence against reporters since the start of the year. Local journalists bore the brunt of the rising anger, particularly online, but the hostilities also affected foreign correspondents, some of whom were harassed by Bolsonaro supporters while covering his victory celebrations.
“During my work as a correspondent I have never experienced a similar level of harassment,” Sandra Korstjens, a Dutch reporter with the commercial broadcaster RTL Nieuws, wrote on Facebook. Korstjens said people were suspicious of her when she was covering an event because they “saw all traditional media as bearers of fake news,” and added that a man followed her and tried to intimidate her. “Fortunately, there were some other supporters who defended me in the end. So, to be very clear: this is not a political statement. It goes beyond politics. It’s the reality we are living in and working in at the moment,” she wrote.
The hostile environment between government and the press is not new. In 1990, in the middle of a war of words between the press and then president Fernando Collor de Melo, federal police invaded the offices of the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
Others trace the start of the current conflict to 2003 when the Workers’ Party took power. The party hit back at what it saw as a hegemonic press opposing its government, the first leftist administration in Brazilian history, said Pedro Doria, a columnist for the dailies O Globo, Estado de São Paulo, and privately owned radio station CBN.
The attacks were mostly rhetorical but when millions of people took to the streets to protests a lack of spending on services such as transport, health and education, they turned violent, with dozens of journalists attacked, as CPJ documented at the time.
The latest escalation, which grew in 2016 after the Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff was impeached and anti-leftist sentiment took root, has exceeded those conflicts in both frequency and vehemence, Doria said.
“This rhetoric from the left has not ended and it is now present on the right as well and it is different, it’s the 4chan kids who are extremely skilled at using the internet and technology to discover emails and dox people and create a climate of terror,” he told CPJ. “My impression is that it will happen more and more. I think the right are getting more aggressive than the left ever was.”
“There’s a climate of threats and there is no perception or comprehension that the press is part of the democratic system, that their job is to analyze and criticize,” he added. “The right is much less sophisticated. They think that if you are not for them then you are against them. And if you are against Bolsonaro then you are an enemy of the nation.”
That sense of us against them has also seeped into journalism.
Before the presidential run-off election, the National Federation of Journalists criticized Bolsonaro and said journalists had an “ethical obligation to position themselves against a candidate that is an apologist for violence…and lauds torturers, hates blacks, women, LGBTIs, indigenous people, and the poor.”
Most media organizations have taken pains to remind their staff to stay impartial. They have also doubled efforts to ensure their journalists remain safe, with lessons on how to use social media, a review of safety procedures and equipment, and warnings even over what color of clothes to wear at political events–avoid yellow for Workers’ Party events and Socialist red when surrounded by Bolsonaro supporters.
Editors at regional dailies such as O Povo and national ones like Folha de S.Paulo played down the threat in conversations with CPJ, saying Brazil’s always rambunctious environment has inured them to confrontations with both government and the public.
But many reporters are less sanguine. Some told CPJ they have changed the settings on their social media to private and taken down pictures of their family. Others have removed their bylines or Twitter handles from their stories to avoid being harassed or doxed.
“I think a lot of people are intimidated and fearful that they will be attacked,” Patricia Campos Mello, a reporter from Folha de S.Paulo who had her phone and social media accounts hacked after writing a story about alleged illegal campaign dealings by Bolsonaro supporters, told CPJ. “I am much more careful because they are trying to expose journalists. I am more cautious in my approach to people in the new government because I worry they are going to use it against me.”
If there is a silver lining to these looming clouds it is the renewed interest in media and their role.
Bolsonaro and his backers have railed against the press and made it clear they will govern, like U.S. President Donald Trump, via social media. Bolsonaro’s acceptance speech was delivered on Facebook and many of his cabinet announcements have come on Twitter.
One of his most influential supporters has called journalists ‘the biggest enemies of the people’ and in comments reminiscent of Trump’s repeated attacks on the media, Bolsonaro singled out Folha for particular ire and threatened to review the government’s budget for media spending.
Folha immediately saw a “significant” spike in subscriptions, managing editor Vinicius Mota told CPJ.
“There is a positive reaction in the sense that people are recognizing the value of professional journalism,” Mota said in an interview at the Folha offices in São Paulo. “Like the so-called Trump bump that happened in the United States, there is also a positive reaction here.”
- CPJ’s journalist safety kit offers advice on physical, digital, and psychological safety.
[Reporting from São Paulo]