Brazil is falling into an abyss

The images of that fateful day, 8 January 2023, are still vivid in my mind. It was Sunday, I was at my house in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil, and I turned on the TV live as usual. The scenes I saw on CNN were ones of barbarism and destruction at the Three Powers Plaza, in Brasília. While watching the images of the police allowing a free passage to the horde of Jair Bolsonaro supporters, I felt fear and outrage. They destroyed all the buildings of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court and the president’s house, the Planalto Palace.

According to Alexandre de Moraes, Minister of the Supreme Court Federal (STF), at least 140 of the 1,500 Bolsonaristas arrested for the attacks are accused of terrorist acts, criminal association and threat and incitement of violence. For Moraes, the crimes are “very serious” and were committed “evidently out of step with the guarantee of freedom of expression”, provided for in Article 5 of the Constitution.

But it is precisely freedom of expression that Bolsonaristas claim as an argument for – and justification of – their dissemination of hate speech and fake news, acts of racism or any type of violent action. And now, after the arrests of the perpetrators of the attacks in Brasília, they claim to be victims of “censorship”.

In the days leading up to the attacks, inflammatory rhetoric intensified on social media and included a series of thinly veiled metaphors. The main one was an invitation to “Selma’s Party”.

“Selma” is a play on the word selva, which means jungle in Portuguese, and is also used by the Brazilian military as a greeting or war cry. This vocabulary is the result of long exposure to a sea of fake news broadcast on Bolsonarist’s profiles and channels, especially on WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube and Twitter, always in the name of “God, homeland and family” – that’s why they self-styled as “patriots”. The daily gaslighting is also promoted via TV channels, radio and Jair Bolsonaro himself, who has long been raising doubts about the electoral process and promoting the cult of violence and destruction of the “enemy”.

It became so serious that even I began to worry about what would happen on 31 October 2022, the day of the elections: social media posts said that anyone who voted for Lula would be identified by their hair or the colour of their clothes and would die. (Those who are Bolsonaristas usually wear the shirts of the Brazilian soccer team.)

The result of this social media intoxication is a subsect of people who are detached from reality: of these some think that the elections were rigged by the STF, that Lula is dead and the person in his place is a double, that Brazil will become a communist country. They even prayed collectively to be saved by extraterrestrials and, of course, said that the attacks in Brasília were carried out by “infiltrators of the left”. It’s a collective psychosis.

By inverting rational logic, the Bolsonarist discourse sounds like a delirium, and it is tempting to classify it in the realm of the ridiculous. But the concrete results of the denial of reality and the proclamation of hatred have now come to fruition.

Today, by saying they’ve been censored, the Bolsonarist camp is basically calling for revenge. They say they are victims of political persecution and that the Lula government and the STF are disrespecting the Constitution, which, by the way, had copies stolen and torn in the attacks. They’ve been led down an even darker path, saying that Brazil is living under a dictatorship. Censorship, whether real or imaginary, has become a useful tool for a Bolsonarist who wants to continue promoting chaos.

That said, the response to the attacks has been troubling. On the surface, it seems reasonable for the STF to repress disinformation and suspend profiles on social networks, even more so now, after the attacks. The justification for suspending Bolsonarist profiles has a legal basis in the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Law 12,965/2014).

In addition to suspending profiles, the STF and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) have ordered the removal of posts (especially on Twitter) that attack democracy and spread conspiracy theories. Among them was the influencer “Monark” (1.4 million followers) and Nikolas Ferreira, a federal representative from the state of Minas Gerais, with two million followers, both of whom were suspended from Twitter for their perceived role in the coup.

There is also the “Democracy Package”, launched on 26 January. It is a series of measures prepared by the Minister of Justice, Flavio Dino, including the regulation of social networking platforms to curb “political crimes” and ban content judged undemocratic. It is not yet known what the criteria will be, but it is clearly a proposal to limit freedom of expression and the plurality of speech online. This set of measures will be sent to the National Congress for a vote.

On the surface reasonable yes, but in reality the “deplatforming” is dangerous because it already serves as a basis for the extreme right to say they are being persecuted and censored, and this gives even more fuel for a violent civil insurrection with military support. Also where will it end? Where is the line?

Of course it’s not easy to decide the limits of free expression at this moment. Still, have authorities got the balance right? Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, I’ve never come across such a fine line between liberty and punishment, as well as surveillance on social media – and I fear where it will lead.

On 12 December, 2022, the date of Lula’s inauguration as president-elect, hundreds of Bolsonaristas promoted a riot in Brasília, culminating in the invasion of the Federal Police building and burning of vehicles, including several buses, one of them hanging on the side of an overpass where traffic was flowing. Then, on 24 December 2022, a truck loaded with explosives was located near Brasília airport. The man behind the truck bomb confessed to being a Bolsonarist and said the act was planned by a group that had been camped in front of the Army General Headquarters for more than two months.

The military has been accused of assisting in the execution of plans by the far right. Even President Lula himself claimed that there was “evidence” of collusion between them and Bolsonaro’s supporters.

If you say this to a Bolsonarist though he will laugh in your face and say it’s all a lie from the media. He will believe that the people dressed in green and yellow in Brasilia, on 8 January 2023, were members of the left who wanted to carry out a “self-coup” days after being victorious in the elections in a pledge to crack down on Bolsonaro supporters.

This is the abyss Brazil has plunged into since Bolsonaro lost the election. On top of refusing to accept defeat, he has sought refuge in the United States since 29 December 2022, maintaining a strategic and deliberate silence for his supporters. Meanwhile, faced with immense challenges –  maintaining democratic values while punishing those who broke the law – Lula finds himself walking in cotton shoes on glass. It’s hard work and the events of early January are not over yet.

Can a familiar face herald a new start in Brazil?

On 30 October, Brazilians took part in one of the most fiercely contested presidential elections in their country’s  history. It divided the country right down the middle:, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers Party) received more than 60.3 million votes (50.9%), winning the support of more voters than any president in the history of Brazil, defeating the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), who was seeking four more years in power.

“Democracy has spoken in Brazil”, wrote the French newspaper Le Monde. For many, it was the victory of respect for democracy, against the intolerance represented by the extreme right personified in Bolsonaro. 

I have been living in the United Kingdom since 2020 but travelled to Brazil a few days before the first round of the elections, which took place on 2 October. I was able to vote in both rounds and was glad to do so, as I believe we don’t vote only for ourselves. Voting is a collective action, especially in Brazil, where it has been mandatory since 1932. It is also easy and quick, as we vote using electronic machines where we type the candidate’s number, press confirm and it’s done. That’s why the counting of votes in Brazil is fast and allows the country to announce the results on the same day. 

As soon as I arrived in my home town of Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, I noticed people were getting ready for the elections. Many homes and cars were decorated with Brazil’s flag, a sign of support for current president Jair Bolsonaro. Although in smaller numbers, I could also see people backing Lula, especially in pubs and neighbourhoods linked to the left-wing. This support for Bolsonaro was evident in the final results: in the second round, Bolsonaro won 720,322 votes in Curitiba, while Lula won 391,675. Curitiba is not alone in being pro-Bolsonaro; the incumbent president enjoyed some of his strongest support in the white-majority southern state of Paraná in which it is located. But the North East of Brazil, where he obtained 69% of the vote, proved decisive for Lula’s victory. 

Throughout the presidential race, Bolsonaro tried to delegitimise the electoral process. More than once, the outgoing president tried to discredit the electronic voting machines, which make the elections in Brazil one of the most transparent and safest in the world The legitimacy of the elections was confirmed by international observers from the Organisation of American States. In the week before the second round, Bolsonaro said that without the presence of the Armed Forces it would be impossible to give a stamp of credibility to electronic voting machines. His supporters, encouraged by his anti-democratic speeches, pushed for a return to printed voting papers, where the possibility of fraud is higher.

As the elections approached, knowing his chances of re-election were diminishing, Bolsonaro began to take populist measures, such as increasing the value of Auxílio Brasil (Brazil’s social assistance programme) and lowering the price of petrol. Even so, Bolsonaro became the first president to fail to be reelected since reelection was instituted in 1997.

Historically in Brazil, the defeated candidate calls the winner on the same day the results are announced, wishing the future president luck, as well as making a statement to the press, recognising the result and respecting democracy. This was the first time that the defeated candidate had not spoken right after the result was confirmed since the adoption of electronic voting machines in the presidential elections of 1998. Bolsonaro broke his silence two days later, saying that as president, he would continue to respect Brazil’s Constitution. He did not mention his rival Lula and didn’t answer questions from journalists. Lula’s victory signals Brazil’s return to the international stage at a time of global crisis. The Guardian wrote that “his victory over the current right-wing extremist, Jair Bolsonaro, is also good for the world”. Norway has already announced that it will once again send financial resources in the fight against deforestation of the Amazon l, as Lula reinforced during his campaign the importance of preserving the rainforest and the lives of indigenous peoples. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak congratulated Lula on his victory and said he wanted to work together with Brazil to strengthen the global economy and promote democratic values. Joe Biden also sent his congratulations to the future Brazilian president and stressed that the elections were fair and free. Emmanuel Macron said that Lula’s election opens a new page in the country’s history and wants to join forces to renew the bond of friendship between France and Brazil. 

Since the beginning of his term in 2019, Bolsonaro has tried in every way to divide the country and promote hatred. Families have been fighting over politics and bonds have been broken because people can’t stand the other side anymore. When Bolsonaro took over the presidency, he said that minorities would have to bow to the majority. Lula, shortly after being officially declared the next President of the Republic, said that as of January 2023 he will govern for 215 million Brazilians and not just for those who voted for him. 

“There are not two ‘Brazils’. We are one country, one people, one great nation,” said the president-elect. 

As for freedom of expression and the press, it is expected that Lula’s victory will improve both. Many Brazilians opposed to Bolsonaro have not expressed support for their preferred candidates for fear of reprisal and violence. It was not uncommon for Lula supporters to be physically attacked or even killed, as in the case of Marcelo Arruda, treasurer of the Workers Party, who was shot dead in Foz do Iguaçu, at his own birthday party, by a supporter of Jair Bolsonaro. Likewise, journalists were constantly attacked by Bolsonaro in his speeches. 

Shortly after Lula’s victory was announced, Bolsonaro supporters began to demonstrate on the country’s roads and introduced illegal blockades on 227 federal highways, in protest against the election results and asking for military intervention and new elections. The newspaper O Estado de São Paulo reported, on Telegram, that groups who support Bolsonaro claim to be at war against Communism and that they will use violence if needed. Some protesters were seen using Nazi salutes. On Tuesday, 1 November, the Federal Court of Justice ordered the unblocking of the occupied highways. One day later, Bolsonaro asked everyone to clear the highways, saying he believed this was not a legitimate demonstration. 

Bolsonaro’s legacy is clear. Almost 700,000 deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, disrespect for science, more than 33 million Brazilians going hungry, support for the 1964 military coup and a contempt for democracy and freedom of expression. On the night of 30 October, thousands of people headed to Avenida Paulista, one of the most important in the city of São Paulo, to celebrate Lula’s victory and await the future president. 

“This country needs peace and unity,” Lula said. The front cover of O Estado de São Paulo quoted one of Lula’s phrases after his triumph: “time to put down our weapons”. The hope is that Lula will once again bring international respect to Brazil. 

Latin America: media reforms spark debate

This is a guest post by Ángel García Català

On 14 December, the first national Brazilian congress on communication and media will be held in the country’s capital. The four day conference in Brasilia will discuss, amongst other things, the need for a new media law. The Workers’ Party (PT) is trying to amend the current legislation, which they consider to be “anachronistic and authoritarian” primarily because they believe it favours the interest of business over the interests of the wider population. Brazilian president President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has shown that he favours the reform, stating that “the more television there is, the more journalism and cultural programmes that appear, the more political debates ensue and the stronger the democratisation of communication will become”.

Brazil is following a process that has already been initiated by other countries in the region. El Salvador has also started discussions on media law whilst the parliament of Ecuador will begin the approval process of its own law on the 10 December. Other countries like Uruguay and Argentina have already adopted reforms.

Opinions on these laws and their suitability are polarised. Take the various reactions to the law adopted by the Argentinian Senate, for example. Some see this type of reform as a clear attack on freedom of expression, while others applaud it as a mechanism for strengthening democracy.

The new law in Argentina, which replaces the broadcasting law passed in 1980 during the military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, provides that the same company cannot own more than 10 audiovisual licences. Those who are currently exceeding that number will be forced to sell the rest. One of the businesses most affected by this measure is the Clarín group, which has 264 licences and whose profits last year stood at around US $500 million.

The Spanish companies Telefonica and Grupo Prisa (which publishes El País) are also greatly affected. No wonder then, that these companies are among the biggest opponents to reform. Ricardo Roa, assistant general editor of the newspaper Clarín believes that “the law promotes a press weaker and docile toward political power”. Associations like the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) have also rejected the new law outright, saying that such reforms are an “enslavement to freedom of expression while promoting the creation and acquisition of media by the state and groups close to power.”

In contrast, the Argentinian reforms have the full support of Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who considers it as one of the most advanced reforms in the world, as well as seeing it as “an example to others countries [to] ensure access for all social sectors to the media”. Reporters Sans Frontieres has also endorsed the reform, calling it a “brave and necessary law, despite pressure from some pretty selfish press groups”.