Shooting the messenger
Brazil’s National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ) recently released a report detailing 430 cases of attacks against journalists in 2021. Leading the charge is our president, Jair Bolsonaro – responsible for 147 registered cases, mainly public vilification and verbal assaults. He had held the dubious distinction of attacker-in-chief in 2020 as well.
The state-owned broadcast network (EBC) follows hot on his heels, accounting for another 142 cases. Close to five per cent of the attacks came from Bolsonaro supporters, who regard violence in the name of their hero as an almost divine mission.
Physical intimidation is not uncommon. On 12 December 2021, TV reporters were wounded by security guards and fans of the president while trying to cover Bolsonaro’s visit to a region hit by heavy rains. And on 31 October, journalists reporting on Bolsonaro’s trip to the G20 in Rome were roughed up by the president’s security agents.
Since coming into office, Bolsonaro has sought to control institutions representing public power: the federal police, federal revenue service, attorney general’s office, and environmental inspection agencies. It’s a two-pronged strategy of attack and co-option. When it comes to civil society, it’s the press that’s in his gunsights.
For Bolsonaro, it is important that the public sees less-than-flattering media reports as lies. Such as those regarding the embezzlement of public resources by members of his family, or corruption in the purchase of vaccines or school buses by the health and education ministries. His administration’s incompetence in generating jobs and reducing hunger is denounced as fake news. The demonizing of reporters who break these stories is now standard.
Women journalists in particular raise the ire of the ‘Bolsonaristas’, with sexism playing a vicious role. A recent survey of women and LGBTQI+ journalists by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Gênero e Número showed that almost 85 per cent had changed their behaviour on social media to protect themselves from attacks, with more than 50 per cent saying the barrage of abuse impacted their professional lives. Fifteen per cent disclosed they had developed mental health issues as a result of the persecution.
Bolsonaro is not above name calling. In June 2021, he told a female TV reporter to shut up during an interview and called her a ‘dick’. In a speech to his supporters that same month he referred to a woman TV presenter as a ‘quadruped’. In April this year, the president’s son Eduardo, who is also a federal deputy, mocked the torture suffered by one of Brazil’s best-known woman journalists during the military dictatorship years.
Sadly, women journalists face abuse the world over. And in Brazil, there are other politicians, Left and Right, who also act intolerantly against reporters. They deserve repudiation too. But our president takes hatred of the press to another level, his pronouncements amplified by both state and social media.
The attacks on journalists by the president and his family have a clear political intent. With institutions functioning normally, such behaviour would not go unpunished. Unfortunately, this is not the case.