Ensuring freedom of the press and safety for journalists is a historical challenge that Brazil has yet to overcome to this day. On the very day the country commemorates Press Freedom In Brazil, indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips have been missing in the remote edge of the Amazon for over 48 hours. Mr. Pereira, a lifelong advocate for the rights of traditional peoples, had been receiving successive violent threats for his work to push back against illegal fishing, gold mining, logging, and drug trafficking.
Far-right President Bolsonaro, who has attacked the press on numerous occasions since taking office, declared that Bruno and Dom should never have gone on the trip. But without brave journalists and local experts, the harrowing stories that haunt vulnerable remote regions can never be told.
As we write this post, yearning for Bruno and Dom to be found safe, we can only conclude that there is no freedom of the press in Brazil, while journalists fear for their own lives and those of their colleagues. Today, certainly, is not a day for celebration.
While the country is plagued by hate speech and attempts to silence the press — including threats to the safety of journalists themselves — we can resist in the only way we know how: by telling the stories that matter.
In honor of those who came before us and the ones that still fight on our side, today we remember landmark stories ranging from uncovering corruption schemes to impeaching presidents that highlight how necessary a free press is for Brazilian democracy.
The president toppled by a Fiat
In 1990, Fernando Collor de Melo became Brazil's first democratically elected president after 20 years of military dictatorship. His key platform? Fighting corruption and controlling rampant inflation. Needless to say he achieved neither; in fact, he became the first Brazilian president to suffer impeachment.
His downfall came with one single interview published by Veja Magazine in May, 1992. Entitled "Pedro Collor Tells All," the president's brother revealed to reporter Luís Costa Pinto that he knew all about a corruption scheme led by the president's campaign aide Paulo Cesar "PC" Farias. PC Farias intermediated the payment and receipt of bribes as part of an influence peddling scheme, and most of the money went to President Collor.
The interview sparked a crisis in government and a parliamentary inquiry. But the coup de grace did not come from Congress: in June, IstoÉ Magazine published a story with Eriberto França, the president's driver, who revealed he was responsible for paying the First Family's expenses using bribe money. A picture of a check to pay for a Fiat station wagon for the president's wife was the decisive proof that buried Mr. Collor's term.
The interview that rocked a government
Exactly 17 years ago, an interview published by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo rocked the administration of then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, uncovering a corruption scheme that, to this day, is at the core of the resentment against the Workers Party in Brazil — and is a leading cause of President Jair Bolsonaro's election in 2018.
On June 6, 2005, journalist Renata Lo Prete published a long interview with federal lawmaker Roberto Jefferson, who revealed that high-level authorities within the cabinet organized a corruption scheme that siphoned money from the national post office company in exchange for support in Congress. The monthly pay-offs of BRL 30,000 went down in history as the infamous Mensalão, and led to the conviction of 24 people, including Mr. Jefferson. Ms. Lo Prete went on to win the most prestigious prize in Brazilian journalism.
The war on misinformation and its casualties
In October 2018, Brazil was a veritable powder keg. Then-presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro had just been stabbed, in the first case of violence against a candidate during the campaign in decades, and social media was pouring more gasoline onto the fire everyday.
That's when reporter Patricia Campos Mello lit a match, with a report denouncing that pro-Bolsonaro business owners were illicitly funding anti-Workers Party campaigns on social media. According to the report, the propaganda went under the electoral justice's radar and included fake news.
Published less than two weeks before the run-off and with no sources speaking on the record, the report was not strong enough to change the result of the election. However, it did spark a deeper debate on misinformation in Brazil and, later, other reports brought evidence that led to the creation of an inquiry in Congress.
Ms. Campos Mello won the International Press Freedom Award in 2019 for her work, but also suffered harassment from President Jair Bolsonaro himself and a wave of digital bullying that included threats and hacking attacks.
The debate on misinformation also reached the Supreme Court, currently leading a controversial inquiry into fake news affecting the court's own members. Amid the crackdown, magazine Crusoé and its parent website O Antagonista were forced to remove an article implying a connection between Justice Dias Toffoli and construction firm Odebrecht, notorious for its involvement in corruption cases. This, even though other media outlets had already confirmed the veracity of the source documents used by the magazine.
The state of press freedom today
As Brazil heads to another highly-polarized election next October, the freedom of the press is more important than ever and, at the same time, has never been so threatened. If you want to understand why supporting high-quality journalism is so important today, we selected a few of the pieces we published on freedom of speech and press freedom at The Brazilian Report this year.
Remember that it is your support that sustains these stories and keeps Brazilian democracy on the right track so, please, consider buying us a coffee or becoming a member of our community, if you haven't already!