Brazil’s far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has wasted no time showing his hostility to the independent news media, raising fears for the press under his administration, watchdog groups say.
International media associations are just the latest group to voice concern about the Latin American giant’s future under the former army captain, who has made derogatory comments against women, gays and blacks, and defends the use of torture by Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985).
The media controversy blew up after Bolsonaro threatened in one of his first interviews as president-elect to cut state advertising in newspapers or broadcasters that “behave disgracefully.”
That prompted the Inter American Press Association to say it was worried over “reprisals Brazil’s president-elect would take against the press.”
“We are concerned that the president-elect does not draw a distinction between government and state, in saying that he would use the public administration to punish media that turn out to be uncomfortable, denying them official advertising,” said the organization’s president, Maria Elvira Dominguez.
The Brazilian Investigative Journalism Association said it was fearful for the future given Bolsonaro’s comments, and the National Newspaper Association also registered its disapproval.
“Possible differences of opinion with the news media cannot be confused with unacceptable retaliation against newspapers via state advertising money,” said its president, Marcelo Rech.
The president-elect did not shy from naming names of the media outlets that have invoked his wrath.
First on the list: Brazil’s leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, which broke a story on an illicit campaign to send bulk WhatsApp messages slandering Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad, and his Workers’ Party.
The contracts with the companies that sent the message were worth up to $3.2 million, the newspaper reported — money that was not declared to the electoral authorities.
The paper also infuriated Bolsonaro with an investigation that found he had a ghost employee on his payroll as a congressman.
Speaking after the election, Bolsonaro declared his commitment to the free press — then followed it up by saying of Folha: “That newspaper is finished.”
“As far as I’m concerned, media that behave disgracefully will not get federal government funds,” he said.
‘Get used to it’
“Get used to it,” Folha fired back Wednesday in an editorial.
“This newspaper will comfortably continue standing guard because it doesn’t depend on federal advertising,” it said.
The Brazilian press “will not stop scrutinizing the workings of power just because those who hold it at the moment employ the tactic of intimidation.”
Folha told AFP it receives less than five percent of its advertising revenue from the federal government.
The newspaper got a surge of public support in the form of shout-outs on social media, as well as new subscriptions.
But Bolsonaro’s supporters have also taken to social media to attack journalists perceived as critical of the politician.
Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders warned last week there has been an increase in both physical attacks and threats against journalists in Brazil’s highly polarized climate.
The Brazilian Investigative Journalism Association said it had registered 141 cases during the campaign.
The Sao Paulo Foreign Correspondents’ Association meanwhile said journalists had reported “countless” stories of physical and verbal harassment, calling on both Bolsonaro and his supporters to respect the Brazilian constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press.