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Freedom in Brazil gradually eroded

Mariana Valente
August 18, 2020

State power is being mobilized to obviate views contrary to the government’s views and interests, says Mariana Valente. She fears that the shrinking access to public information is creating an environment of distrust.

Brazil Artistic Censorship
Demonstrators hold up books during a protest against censorship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in October 2019Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

At the end of 2018, when it became clear that Jair Bolsonaro was going to be elected, his opponents divided into those who believed he lacked the ability to last a long time and those who feared he would immediately try to break democratic institutions. It was no paranoia: Bolsonaro had made his praise of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985) and their sanguinary leaders public whenever he could. Few predicted what would happen: a permanently crisis-led administration, eroding rights day by day. 

A year into his government, his “02” son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, declared that if leftists radicalized, a new AI-5 would be made necessary. AI-5 stands for Institutional Act No. 5, the infamous 1968 military dictatorship decree that gave the president the authority to force the Congress and state assemblies into recess, censored artistic expression, suspended habeas corpus for politically motivated crimes and prohibited political convenings without police authorization. Praise of the AI-5 and other vague threats of “more energic measures” have not been uncommon in the government’s ranks ever since. 

Words uttered by public authorities are influential. Aggressive and hateful public manifestations from the president and his family — three of his sons are parliamentarians and influential in the government and the public sphere — fuel physical and online attacks against journalists, the opposition and marginalized groups. Additionally, state power is being mobilized to obviate worldviews contrary to the government’s views and interests. 

Examples spread over 18 months of government 

Funag, a prestigious think tank founded in 1971 and tied to the Brazilian ministry of foreign relations, took down an open-access manual about the history of Brazil that had a critical phrase about the president. At least two books had their publication canceled because their prefaces were written by experts critical of the current anti-multilateralism approach to foreign policy. Public programs to fund the arts have been explicitly censored — from LGBTQ film projects to plays about authoritarian regimes. An advertising campaign by the public bank Banco do Brasil depicting gender and racial diversity was taken off the air upon the request of the president “out of respect for the people.” The Palmares Foundation, a federal government institution created to preserve Brazilian black heritage, took down from its website biographies of historic black leaders — “icons of the victimist left,” its new head Sérgio Camargo declared. It began publishing papers that question the existence of racism in Brazil. The publication of data on drug use by the prestigious federal university Fiocruz was prohibited on the grounds of being biased — too liberal. 

Mariana Valente, director of the São Paulo-based think tank InternetLab
Mariana ValenteImage: privat

Access to public information is brutally shrinking 

The current government has made at least 13 attempts to hide public information — including two acts to change the 2011 Freedom of Information Law in order to make more databases classified and other measures to hide or modify specific databases. Access to reports on social media surveillance by the government was denied on the grounds of copyright, information on government meetings denied on privacy justifications, and studies that supported the 2019 pension reform made partially secret. The president of the National Institute of Spatial Research was fired after releasing data on the rise of deforestation and fires in the Amazon. At the beginning of the pandemic, the government edited an emergency decree suspending access to information deadlines, and has since taken down the website of the ministry of health. Brazil’s vibrant civil society reacted and the Supreme Court reverted both cases. But the rate of response to information requests has steadily decreased, and public trust in government data weakened. 

Journalists and the media are affected twofold: the lack of information creates new challenges and an environment of distrust, additionally, under the rhetoric of fake news, Bolsonaro is sparing no effort to attack and defund the media. Hostility towards journalists, not taking their questions and opting for live streams instead of press conferences have become the new normal. 

The Brazilian democratic constitution of 1988 set a framework under which, by leaps and bounds, participation grew, rights became recognized and enforced, and citizenry could see a future ahead. The 2019 Democracy Index declassified Brazil to a “flawed democracy.” The democratic resistance belt that is still forming could either corner the government and stall the erosion of freedoms and democratic institutions until the next elections or result in Bolsonaro’s ouster or resignation altogether. We would however still have to deal with the political culture that brought us here. 

Mariana Valente is the director of the São Paulo-based think tank InternetLab which focuses on human rights and digital technologies. She holds a PhD in Sociology of Law from the University of São Paulo Law School and is the Coordinator of Creative Commons Brazil. Valente works in the field of human rights and internet policies, copyright and access to culture, knowledge and education, gender, women’s rights and technology. 

This article was first published in DW's corporate magazine Weltzeit. Read the full magazine here:

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