Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is seen in Brasilia on March 20, 2020. Bolsonaro recently passed a provisional regulation restricting access to public records. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is seen in Brasilia on March 20, 2020. Bolsonaro recently passed a provisional regulation restricting access to public records. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

Brazil restricts access to government information amid COVID-19 emergency

Rio de Janeiro, March 26, 2020 — Brazilian authorities should not use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to restrict access to government information, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 23, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed Provisional Measure 928, which suspends deadlines for public authorities and institutions to respond to requests for information submitted under the country’s freedom of information legislation, and forbids appeals in cases of denied requests, according to the measure, which CPJ reviewed.

According to the measure, those changes will be valid while Brazil remains in a “state of calamity” due to the coronavirus outbreak. On March 20, the Brazilian Congress approved a decree enacting a state of calamity until December 31.

A provisional measure is a legal instrument that can be adopted by the president in urgent situations; it takes effect immediately, but Congress must approve it within 45 days in order for it to become permanent law, according to the body’s website.

Today, Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes ordered the provisional measure’s changes to the freedom of information legislation to be suspended temporarily in response to a motion filed by the Order of Attorneys of Brazil, the country’s bar association, according to news reports. The Supreme Court will vote on whether that suspension will be lifted or whether the measure will be scrapped, at a date that has not been announced, according to those reports. Moraes also subpoenaed the National Congress and the presidency for more information on the measure, according to the Supreme Court’s website.

“Amid a growing public health crisis, it is more vital than ever for Brazilian citizens to have access to reliable information,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Congress should reject this attempt to use emergency measures as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of expression or roll back constitutionally guaranteed access to information.”

In response to Moraes’ order, announced after CPJ published this article, Southwick added, “Now that the provisional measure restricting public information requests has been suspended, it should stay that way.”

Law 12.527, known as the “Right to Information Law,” entered into force in 2011 and requires public institutions to respond to requests for information within 20 days, with a maximum extension of up to 10 days.

By suspending those requirements, the new provisional measure potentially violates the constitutional right of Brazilian citizens to access information of public interest, according to a joint statement issued on March 24 by a group of local and regional civil society organizations.

“The Law on Access to Information already provides for instruments allowing a public agency to deny a request for access to information, if it does not have the capacity to respond,” said Marcelo Träsel, president of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), in a statement sent to CPJ via messaging app.

“The Provisional Measure is risky because, in practice, it allows the Government to choose which requests will receive an answer and which will not, without having to offer any justification,” he said.

Bolsonaro has also enacted measures criminalizing sharing allegations against politicians, and members of his government have harassed journalists covering politics, as CPJ has documented.

[Editors’ Note: This article has been changed in its fifth paragraph to reflect Moraes’ decision, which was announced soon after CPJ published this alert. Natalie Southwick added an additional quote in the seventh paragraph to reflect those developments.]