First as a candidate and now in his first months as president, Jair Bolsonaro has made his disdain for the media crystal clear. Ministers, supporters, and his family members have followed his lead by no longer offering interviews, attacking and blocking critical reporters on social media, and calling them out as “fake news.”
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who took power with a far-right manifesto focused on fighting corruption and taming Brazil’s shocking crime rates, criticized the media throughout his campaign. As president, he has avoided open press conferences and preferred to make announcements either via social media or to friendly reporters. One tweet sent earlier this month smeared a female reporter who was investigating his family’s dubious financial dealings by repeating a fabricated news story.
“The good thing is we now have a presidential spokesman,” said Anthony Boadle, Brasilia correspondent for Thomson Reuters, referring to General Otávio Rêgo Barros, spokesman of the presidency. “He takes any questions, he gets back to you and he knows the world. The bad news is that there are no more off the record or background talks. It’s the same at the Foreign Ministry. The government is now run with military discipline. No one wants to talk because they are scared of stepping out of line.”
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Bolsonaro canceled a scheduled press conference and instead gave an exclusive to Record TV, a small channel owned by an evangelical priest who endorsed Bolsonaro for president.
That decision was symbolic of Bolsonaro’s Trumpian communications strategy. He has shunned Brazil’s biggest and most influential broadcaster, TV Globo, in favor of conservative outlets, and his sons have aggressively spread his message via social media. Access, in almost every way, is more restricted.
“I started taking pictures under the military government of Castello Branco in 1966,” said photographer Orlando Brito. “Under the military, as tough as they were and as difficult as it was, you had access, you could photograph everything but not publish because of censorship. Today, it is more contradictory, you can publish everything through the internet but not photograph anything.”
One of Bolsonaro’s sons, Carlos Bolsonaro–a city councilman in Rio de Janeiro who helped choreograph the campaign that brought his father to power–has repeatedly attacked the press online. The Rio newspaper O Globo analyzed 500 tweets and retweets sent out by Carlos between December 15 and February 15 and found that almost three-quarters were attacks, and of those, 42.4 percent were critical of the press.
Carlos has not blocked journalists or critics on Twitter, but his brother Eduardo who is a senator, and the president himself, have.
The Intercept Brasil, one of the news outlets most critical of the Bolsonaro government, says eight of its reporters were blocked, and at least one foreign correspondent told CPJ that he was also blocked by the family.
This blocking prevents journalists from adequately covering an administration that makes many public announcements via Twitter.
“We’ve received multiple legal opinions that this is a violation of equal access guarantees in the Constitution,” Andrew Fishman, managing editor of The Intercept Brasil, told CPJ. “We are actively considering our options to push back against this abusive action by Bolsonaro and to defend the rights of journalists in a country where they are increasingly at risk.”
The federal government did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.
The trend of demonizing the press has also spread to Congress, where several members have attacked or insulted journalists on Twitter.
In one remarkable outburst, veteran Senator Renan Calheiros attacked Dora Kramer, a journalist with the Veja newsmagazine, with tweeted innuendo about her sex life. Deputy Alexandre Frota, a porn actor who was elected as part of the Bolsonaro wave, has attacked the media on more than occasion, with a judge ruling in January that Frota must pay damages for insulting Juca Kfouri, a sports columnist, on Twitter.
“The Bolsonaro group and their sons, they attack and they turn people from Facebook and Twitter against journalists,” Eliane Cantanhêde, a Brasilia-based reporter and columnist, told CPJ. “They have an attack network and it’s awful because any time there is a story they try to shift the attention away from it by creating fake news.”
Cantanhêde pointed out the previous governing Workers’ Party used similar tactics, slandering all opponents as “coupmongers” after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016.
But even those who see Bolsonaro’s attacks as the latest in a long-developing negative trend say the actions of the new president and his supporters are part of a more insidious effort to undermine media scrutiny and make it harder for reporters to get even the most basic information from government sources.
Journalists in the capital Brasilia have had their access to Congress restricted for certain sessions. Press covering the inauguration said they were ordered to arrive hours early, and had only limited access to restrooms and other facilities.
And on an institutional level, the government sought to neuter Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act by sharply increasing the number of officials who can declare documents secret or top secret. Currently, only a few dozen senior officials in the government, military, and diplomatic corps have that power, which can keep documents under wraps for as long as 25 years. The Bolsonaro government sought to increase that number to more than 1,000.
The proposal was defeated in Congress, but advocates are concerned about the move to reduce transparency.
“If you are elected under the banner of fighting corruption then you can’t expand the mechanisms that might increase the number of documents that are classified as secret,” said Joara Marchezini of freedom of expression group Article 19 in Sao Paulo.
If there is any cause for optimism, it is the response from Brazil’s media outlets.
Brazil’s biggest media conglomerates are often described as being conservative, but since his inauguration they have been critical of Bolsonaro. Even those who turned a blind eye to his behavior during the campaign have called him out for his actions as president.
The bottom line, however, is that an atmosphere that was already strained during previous administrations has worsened and journalists are still unsure of how it will affect them, both in terms of reporting and personal safety.
“We had difficulties contacting them during the campaign, it was difficult and sometimes impossible,” Chantal Reyes, correspondent for French newspaper Libération, told CPJ. “Since Bolsonaro was elected there is an atmosphere of concern in terms of how our relationship with the government is going to be and if there will be retaliation for criticizing them.”
“The fact is that journalists don’t feel comfortable because they are attacking the press all the time.”
[Reporting from São Paulo]