Brazilian journalists gird for tough times under Bolsonaro

December 18, 2018
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Sergio LIMA/AFP/Getty Images.

The day after he captured Brazil’s presidency in a run-off, Jair Bolsonaro spoke with Globo News, Brazil’s largest television network. Bolsonaro, dressed casually in a light blue polo shirt and dark blue jacket, opened the October 29 interview by citing the Book of John in the Bible: “‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ It’s time for Brazil to live with the truth,” he said. “The elections are over. Enough lies. Enough fake news. Really, we’re in a new era.” The president-elect touted his respect for a free press before pivoting to slam Folha de São Paulo, one of the country’s preeminent newspapers, a daily that had published a series of critical investigative stories about him and his campaign in the run-up to the election.

“Almost all the fake news against me started with the Folha de São Paulo,” claimed Bolsonaro, who also threatened on-air to withdraw government advertising in the paper. “Press that behaves like this, lying openly, won’t have resources from the federal government,” he said, referring to the practice of the federal government and state-run companies purchasing advertising in news outlets. Government ads typically promote public services and information such as vaccination campaigns, civil-service exams, or advertise state-run companies such as the Banco do Brasil, a state-run bank.

But the treatment of Folha during the Bolsonaro campaign suggests a harsher future for the press in Brazil after his January 1 inauguration. At the end of September, Folha ran a story affirming that Bolsonaro had threatened to kill his ex-wife. A journalist in a different city who did not work on the story, but shares the name of one of its bylined authors, received threatening phone calls and social media messages.

Folha continued its critical coverage. Ten days before the final round of the election, Folha reporter Patricia Campos Mello wrote a story linking the Bolsonaro campaign to $3.2 million of illegal campaign spending. Campos Mello was barraged by attacks on social media, and, after she received a threat against her son and menacing phone calls, Folha hired a bodyguard to protect her. “Ten minutes after my story was published, they had a hashtag, #marqueterosdoJair [Jair’s marketers], as a counter-narrative, and the bots were retweeting this like crazy,” Campos Mello says.

She wasn’t the only one targeted. A handwritten note left on the doorstep to his home threatened the head of DataFolha, the publication’s research arm. The assault also directed at Folha‘s bottom line, as Bolsonaro supporters called for readers to cancel their subscriptions.

A week before the election, Bolsonaro called the paper “the largest fake news in Brazil” and threatened to cut off funds. At the same time, he congratulated the free press, and in his post-election interview with Globo, he was careful to say that the paper “will finish itself.” Bolsonaro barred reporters from Folha and other publications from participating in his first press conference, and refused a question from a Folha reporter at another press event in late November.

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Such gestures speak to a worrisome climate that’s been intensifying in Brazil: Folha counts 65 attacks on journalists and 129 since the beginning of the year. Abraji, Brazil’s investigative journalists’ association, has recorded more than 150 physical and online assaults so far this year. Four journalists have been killed. The international NGO Article 19 reported that 22 journalists were killed in Brazil between 2012 and 2016.

Folha believes the attacks against the paper and its staff were “premeditated” and “politically orchestrated,” according to a complaint it filed with the Federal Police in October, the week after Campos Mello’s WhatsApp story appeared. The complaint calls on police to investigate, alleging the threats and harassment both on- and offline aimed to undermine the integrity of Brazil’s electoral process.


Bolsonaro has been quiet about the press since his post-election interview with TV Globo. Earlier this month, however, Bolsonaro’s son, Carlos, a city council member in Rio de Janeiro, told his Twitter followers that Bruno Abbud, a journalist with Época magazine, was “rifling through” his life, prompting attacks against the reporter. Abbud was writing a profile of the council member and filed a complaint with the police because of the onslaught.

Assaults like this have had a chilling effect. In early November, Reuters reported that some journalists at major Brazilian publications were toning down criticism out of fear of the backlash from Bolsonaro’s government. Natalia Viana, co-founder of the investigative outlet Agência Pública, tells CJR that journalists in Brazil have been persecuted for years. “And with the advance of authoritarian governments, which attack the press as part of their strategy of gaining support, of portraying themselves as victims and staying in power,” she says, “the trend is for [this persecution] to worsen.”

In spite of this, Agência Pública recently announced that it will be doubling down on accountability reporting focused on the government. “Journalism’s role is to investigate and publish what the powerful don’t want published,” Viana says. “That’s why these attacks, in reality, just show that journalism rattles and that we have to be watchful and act.”

Recently, two fabricated stories about Campos Mello circulated during one 24-hour period were retweeted thousands of times, including once by the president-elect himself. “It’s really scary how they create a parallel reality,” Campo Mellos, honored this month by Time magazine as a Guardian of the Truthsays of her online attackers. “I stopped using my byline for a while because I was afraid of harassment. But I discovered that even without using my byline, they still harassed me and disseminated fake news.”

Sergio Davila, Folha’s executive editor, says that Bolsonaro, so far, has only blown hot air. “These attacks have demonstrated that we are on the right path,” Davila says. “From the beginning, we have been convinced that our job is to verify and to show what we find, regardless of who the candidate was.” Folha, he says, has “no intention of giving up on critical journalism.” He also pointed to Folha’s history of attracting criticism from sitting presidents and the police raid then-President Fernando Collor de Mello ordered on the paper’s offices in 1990, just a few years after the end of the country’s dictatorship.

Cristina Zahar, executive secretary of Abraji, says that her organization’s position on the prospects for journalists under the new administration is to wait and see. “We hope we don’t have to publish many posts about this kind of harassment,” she says, “but if it goes on, we’ll be there for all journalists.”

Rosental Alves, founder and executive director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, called Bolsonaro’s threats to take away funding from Folha “ridiculous.” Sources report that the paper receives less than 5 percent of its budget from the federal government, which means retaliation against it would have minimal impact.

But, the animosity between the president-elect and the media comes at a time when Brazil’s media is financially vulnerable, Alves says. “The [digital] disruption has now arrived in Brazil, and media companies that were very profitable just a few years ago are suffering from the deep decline in advertising and the recession. So, if you have on top of that a hostile administration, it makes things even worse.”

In the midst of this, Abraji, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders met with a group of 50 journalists earlier this month to discuss creating a national network to protect “communicators”—journalists, bloggers, and other media makers. The project is still a work in progress, but the idea is to minimize the risks journalists face while also ensuring that stories targeted for silencing garner attention.


General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, Bolsonaro’s secretary of government, told Poder 360 he rejected the idea that the government would play favorites or that it would cut funds to Folha or Globo, in spite of Bolsonaro’s threats. The general also stood by the idea that the press should be free from censorship. At the same time, he affirmed the administration’s right to choose what outlets to work with. “Opting for one [outlet] or another is discretionary. There’s no question about that. It’s very much about perception. There aren’t technical criteria for all the evaluations.”

Brazil’s media is highly concentrated in a few hands. Fifty percent of the largest media outlets in Brazil are owned by five families; those outlets include RecordTV, Bolsonaro’s preferred outlet, which is owned by Edir Macedo, a billionaire evangelical pastor and media mogul. The network snagged Bolsonaro’s first interview after the election results came in. RecordTV journalists told The Intercept Brasil they were pressured to favor him during the campaign and to denigrate other candidates to destroy their credibility. Before the first round of the elections, Bolsonaro skipped a debate with other candidates in favor of a one-on-one interview with Record.

Complicating the monitoring of government-media relations is the fact that President Michel Temer abolished the transparency reporting system in 2017. With no system to track government ad buys, it is impossible for watchdogs to know how much government money an individual news outlet receives. In 2015, Globo received 396.5 million Reals in federal advertising funds (roughly $103.2 million), according to Poder 360, making it the largest recipient of government television advertising money. At 32 percent of total spending, this still represents a sharp decrease from the 59 percent it received during former President Luíz Inacio da Silva’s first term in 2003.

Santos Cruz told Poder 360 the government plans on reinstating the advertising tracking system, which operated between 1999 and 2016. It is not clear yet whether the president-elect has approved this. Neither Globo nor Record responded to requests asking what percentage federal advertising represents in their budgets.

Meanwhile, many journalists expect Bolsonaro to continue using social media for political purposes after the inauguration. “[Bolsonaro] talks about this intermediation and how technology created the way for him to talk to the people directly,” Alves says. “I think he is prepared to follow Trump on this path because he has been announcing the ministers on Twitter.”


Meanwhile, Folha’s commitment to rigorous reporting is being rewarded, Folha Editor Davila says. While Bolsonaro supporters called for people to cancel their subscriptions to Folha, a counter-campaign urged people to sign up—and more than made up for those lost subscribers. “We were really pleasantly surprised with this campaign,” Davila says. “Whenever there is disinformation, whenever there is dissemination of fake news, people end up recognizing reliable sources.”

Davila expects the president-elect to become more of a statesman once in office. Still, Folha and its staff are prepared for whatever comes next. “As the Americans say, it’s not our first rodeo.”

Correction: Folha‘s executive editor is Sergio Davila, not Sergio D’Avila.

Zoe Sullivan is an independent journalist and audio producer based in Recife, Brazil.