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The Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro speaks to the press after recording his campaing, in Rio. © Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Presidential candidates should vigorously denounce threats and violence against journalists covering the election campaign in Brazil, several Brazilian and international nongovernmental organizations said today. Scores of reporters have been harassed, threatened, and in some cases physically attacked.

The organizations are the Article 19, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Conectas Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (RSF).

Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter from Folha de São Paulo, received an avalanche of threats online, two threatening calls, and her Whatsapp account was hacked after she uncovered and reported on an alleged campaign by business backers of the presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro to distribute false news stories through WhatsApp to millions of Brazilians.

After that report, Mauro Paulino, a Folha de São Paulo executive, also received threats through a messaging app and at home, the newspaper said. In addition, the paper said Bolsonaro supporters engaged in a “systematic” attack against one of its Whatsapp numbers, which received 220,000 messages in four days. That made it impossible for reporters to follow up on messages sent by its readers, said Folha

On October 23, the paper requested the Superior Electoral Court to order the Federal Police to open an investigation into what it considers a possible “orchestrated attempt to thwart freedom of expression.”

“The threats are unacceptable; they must be investigated and those responsible be held accountable in order to protect responsible, investigative, and independent journalism,” said Juana Kweitel, executive director of Conectas Human Rights.

“The threats against Patrícia Campos Mello and other journalists are an alarming escalation of anti-press rhetoric in this contentious electoral cycle in Brazil,” said Natalie Southwick, CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator. “Journalists covering the Brazilian presidential election must be able to work freely and safely while reporting on issues of public interest. We call on candidates from all parties to respect press freedom and refrain from inflammatory statements against the media, and to urge their supporters to stop harassing and threatening journalists.” 

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) has documented 141 cases of threats and violence against reporters covering the elections. Most of them were allegedly carried out by Bolsonaro supporters, while the rest allegedly involved Workers Party supporters. The online harassment of women reporters covering the elections often includes sexual insults and threats of sexual violence, Article 19 found.

“In order to demonstrate some commitment to the preservation of democracy, both candidates must condemn the intimidation of journalists rather than encourage such practice,” said Daniel Bramatti, president of Abraji.

In March, unidentified  assailants shot at a bus that carried 28 reporters who were covering a Workers Party event. Nobody was hurt. Workers Party supporters have also allegedly harassed and hit reporters.

“It´s unacceptable that people are harassed or attacked due to their work or political opinion. This has a huge chilling effect for the whole society. We need more freedom of expression to foster our democratic institutions,” said Laura Tresca, acting executive director of Article 19 South America.

“Attacks by supporters of presidential candidates against the press are unacceptable and unworthy of any party that aspires to govern the country,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “The hate speech and disinformation campaigns are exacerbating tensions in Brazil’s already highly polarized society. RSF backs all Brazilian journalists, whose work during this turbulent period is essential.”

The Brazilian presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad, speaks with the press after meeting with the the Workers Party National Executive, at Hotel Nobile Suítes Congonhas. © Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil
The harassment and intimidation of journalists occurs in a context of polarization and heightened political violence against LGBT people, women, Afro-Brazilians, and those expressing different political views than the aggressors. On October 8, a man stabbed to death Romualdo Rosário da Costa at a bar in Salvador, allegedly after the man became angry when da Costa revealed he had voted for Fernando Haddad, the Workers Party candidate for president. Bolsonaro himself was the victim of a violent attack during a rally in September.

“One can disagree with a media report, and should have the right to say so publicly, but threatening the reporter and inciting others to do the same not only endangers journalists’ personal safety, but it undermines free speech and democracy,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Presidential candidates should defend reporters’ right to inform the public and the public’s right to be informed.”

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