(São Paulo) – A Brazilian government action in response to a leading environmental defender’s criticism of the Bolsonaro administration’s disastrous environmental policy threatens freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should protect free speech by civil society instead of trying to curb it.
On October 14, 2020, local media reported that the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, had filed a petition asking a judge to require the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, Marcio Astrini, to explain statements critical of government policy that he made in a media interview. The Climate Observatory is a coalition of Brazilian civil society organizations working on climate-related issues.
“Minister Salles should be protecting civil society instead of trying to silence it,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when Brazil is facing an environmental crisis, the environment minister should concentrate his efforts, as well as public resources, on fighting deforestation and fires that are devastating the Amazon and the Pantanal biomes.”
At a meeting of the cabinet with President Jair Bolsonaro on April 22, Salles said that the government should take advantage of the fact that the media were distracted with the Covid-19 pandemic to push through environmental deregulation. The statement was recorded and released on May 22 by the Federal Supreme Court.
Commenting on Salles’ statements at that meeting, Astrini expressed concern that Minister Salles was proposing a “a task force for environmental destruction.” Human Rights Watch, as have many other civil society organizations, also criticized minister Salles’ statements. At the time, Human Rights Watch said it was “extremely concerning” to use the pandemic as a “smokescreen” and that changes to public policies and regulations must be carried out in a transparent way that allows for broad public debate.
In September, the Solicitor General's Office filed a petition before a federal court on behalf of Minister Salles asking the court to require Astrini to explain his critical comments before a judge.
The Bolsonaro administration has lashed out at nongovernmental organizations, particularly those defending the environment. President Bolsonaro has accused them, without any proof, of causing the destruction of the rainforest. In September, President Bolsonaro called groups working in the Amazon a “cancer” that he “can’t kill.”