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Freedom at Stake in Brazil: An Illiberal Project Unfolds Under Bolsonaro’s Regime

Special Series: Perspectives from Undergraduate Law Students

–Pedro Abrantes Martins, Bachelor’s degree candidate, Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), Brazil; Research Fellow, Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development; member of the research group “Abusive Constitutionalism and Democratic Erosion,” UFPR

Freedom is at stake in Brazil. In 2020 alone, the government and its enthusiasts launched attacks on journalists, comedians, and autonomous institutions. Officials issued orders enforcing censorship, affecting government agencies and compromising individual rights. Either by informal (such as verbal and physical attacks on media individuals) or formal means (by enacting new legal measures), Jair Bolsonaro and his allies are slowly hindering liberties in the country. The actions deployed by Bolsonaro may appear only mildly problematic when analyzed in isolation, but they represent a greater danger when analyzed – properly – together. The latest developments should be perceived as part of a bigger phenomenon: worldwide democratic erosion.

Eroding from the Inside: Compromising Institutions

In July 2020, the Brazilian Special Secretariat for Social Communication (Secom) paid several YouTube channels (including channels with content for children and accounts accused of spreading fake news) to display propaganda in favor of the new social security reform.

Not long after that, a national comedian posted a parody on the aforementioned advertisement and was bashed by Secom’s official Twitter account and the current top culture official, Mário Frias, who called the comedian a “filthy creature”. Shortly after, Flávio Serafini, a Brazilian congressman, criticized Frias, who, in a menacing tone, told the lawmaker to watch out for the Federal Police. The whole situation was widely condemned by other lawmakers and civilians.

In a more recent attack, on September 4, the secretary of Culture, Mario Frias, signed a circular letter that was issued to autonomous governmental institutions, determining that appointments, dismissals, transfers, publication of notices and posts on websites and social networks of all bodies linked to the Special Secretariat for Culture must be previously sent to and approved by the institution.

The letter was described by many as an act of censorship; another governmental maneuver deployed against any individual whose ideology differs from the president’s political options. Further, the fact that these agencies are responsible for promoting, regulating and supervising the national film and video and sound industry (among other things), represents a threat to pluralism. Censoring these agencies also means censoring a series of cultural activities that would’ve taken place in Brazil otherwise.  Part of the staff of the referred autonomous institutions argued that the decision is controversial and even illegal.

Decree n. 200 of February 25, 1967, corroborates the argument against the circular letter. The decree indicates in its article 5, item I, that although these bodies perform public administration activities, they provide autonomous services and represent independent legal entities with separate assets and revenue. The article goes on and states that for their better functioning, these institutions require decentralized financial and administrative management.

The intervention is another attempt to punish the “enemies” of the “real Brazilian people.” The letter can be perceived as the most recent manifestation of Bolsonaro’s populist administration. Since the elections, the head of State declared war on minorities and the opposition, an “evil to be defeated” by the “real citizens” (extremist right-wing allies of the president). Furthermore, these developments also demonstrate how Brazil is part of a new wave of autocracy that has changed the modus operandi of authoritarian leaders.

Compromising Freedom of Press

Recent controversies raise a red flag on freedom in the country. Early this year, on World Press Freedom day, Brazilian journalists were attacked during a pro-Bolsonaro rally. The president himself fueled hatred towards the media in many occasions, as he is constantly accusing communication vehicles of lying and supporting leftist leaders. In May, five of the country’s main newspapers announced that they would no longer cover the president’s official residence in light of a torrent of abuse reporters had been subjected to from Bolsonaro and his supporters.

All across the country journalists have been reporting verbal and physical attacks. These actions are almost exclusively launched by Bolsonaristas (the president’s loyal allies). Much like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro bashes press to demean and discredit them. In 2020 alone, the Brazilian head of state threatened to punch a reporter in the face, told a journalist to shut up and stimulated his supporters to harass the professionals.

As the threats weren’t prevented, things escalated to the point of serious attacks. In December of last year, a comedy group launched a film depicting Jesus as gay. The movie was harshly criticized by Bolsonaro’s followers and one of his sons. Shortly after, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the comedians’ headquarters. On a more recent occasion, a knife-wielding man broke into one of the biggest TV studios in Brazil and held a journalist hostage. The man was holding a Bible and called the news and entertainment broadcaster garbage (a Bolsonarista catchphrase) before the crime.

Overall, attacks on Brazilian press have increased under Bolsonaro’s regime. The right-wing populist has resorted to both formal and informal means to compromise freedom of press. In March, Bolsonaro signed Provisional Measure 928, which modified the 2011 Access to Information Law, suspending deadlines for public authorities and institutions to respond to requests for information. Although the measure itself was suspended shortly after, the decision to intervene in the law-making process demonstrates how far Bolsonaro has been willing to go in terms of compromising the work of media outlets.

Some of the aforementioned threats could be compared to the actions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president who has launched attacks on comedians and reporters in recent years. Turkey (alongside other nations) sparked a new generation of studies on democratic erosion and is listed next to Brazil as one of the countries most affected by autocratization according to the Varieties of Democracy’s (V-Dem) Democracy Report 2020.

An Illiberal Project Unfolds

Democratic breakdown does not look the same as it did three decades ago. The formerly employed coup d’état was replaced by a new way of compromising constitutional democracies: subtle strikes of democratic erosion that happen in waves are taking place all over the globe, affecting even some of the most consolidated democracies in the world.

David Landau (2013) explains that there are a few actions that are commonly deployed by these regimes. Among them, he lists (1) establishing government control over the media and other key institutions and (2) harassing the opposition politicians and operatives.

These maneuvers allow incumbents to satisfy international actors that they are sufficiently democratic (so they avoid any consequences) while still compromising mechanisms of vertical accountability, which makes it easier for them to concentrate power. That is precisely what seems to be happening in Brazil.

What should be clear at this point is that democratic breakdown is not necessarily related to one big act of intervention. Just because Bolsonaro is not actively shutting down media outlets and autonomous agencies, it doesn’t mean that nothing is wrong. Anna Lührmann explains that contemporary autocratization is hard to identify, hence the fact that these events should be analyzed carefully and handled with due consideration.

The idea that his regime is simultaneously (i) using the state’s largescale media presence to publicly reward friends and punish enemies, (ii) censoring autonomous agencies, (iii) enforcing a single political option and (iv) fueling hate is what should draw the attention of the international community as well as civilians and courts.

Like other modern would-be autocrats, Bolsonaro assembles a constitutional toolkit that gives him the right tools for unfolding an illiberal project. He handpicks constitutional worst practices (mostly) accepted by courts and the Transnational Legal Order in order to hollow out liberal constitutional content while still paying careful attention to constitutional form (Kim Lane Scheppele).

These practices are accepted because individually they do not produce the same outcome as they do together. The fact that a set of actions (that are sort of indirect restrictions on freedom of speech) may amount to a serious threat is what should no longer go unnoticed in Brazil.

There is more than enough empirical evidence – in Brazil, Turkey and other countries – that although these individual actions may not end democracy when deployed separately, when executed together, their overall results can be catastrophic.

This investigation demonstrates that the events analyzed are a part of a much bigger phenomenon: modern democratic erosion. As there is still time to fight against autocratic behavior, authorities should take action promptly, because once autocracies are settled and autocrats bootstrapped into power, it may be too late.

Suggested citation: Pedro Abrantes Martins, Freedom at Stake in Brazil: An Illiberal Project Unfolds Under Bolsonaro’s Regime, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 17, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/10/freedom-at-stake-in-brazil-an-illiberal-project-unfolds-under-bolsonaros-regime/

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Published on October 18, 2020
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