“The only purpose of attacking the press is to avoid accountability to society” says the presidente of ABRAJI

In an interview with Conectas, Marcelo Träsel spoke about threats and aggression towards journalists

21.06.16: Professor Marcelo Trasel participating in an investigative journalism congress. Photo: Luísa Zelmanowicz/Famecos/PUCRS 21.06.16: Professor Marcelo Trasel participating in an investigative journalism congress. Photo: Luísa Zelmanowicz/Famecos/PUCRS

Last Sunday (23), President Jair Bolsonaro threatened a reporter from the O Globo newspaper after being questioned about deposits made by the former military police officer Fabrício Queiroz in the bank account of the first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro.

While he was on his way to the Brasília Cathedral, the president said to the reporter “what I´d really like to do is smash your face in”. The following day, the head of state retweeted a video used by his supporters to say that the reporter had referred to his daughter. This was false.

This was not an isolated incident. Threats and verbal aggression aimed at members of the press by the president of the Republic and his sons have become commonplace and have even led some outlets to take the decision to refrain from sending reporters to the door of the Alvorada Palace, where the president often makes announcements and goes to wave at his supporters.

According to the Fenai (National Federation of Journalists), 58% of the attacks on journalists that were recorded in 2019, the first year of the Bolsonaro government, were by the president himself. 

Conectas talked to Marcelo Träsel, President of Abraji (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism), in order to understand the effects and the purpose of aggression towards these professions in a democracy and to find out how the organisation has been monitoring cases.

According to the Doctor in Social Communications and Lecturer at the Faculty of Library Science and Communications at UFRS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), attacks on reporters are not an exclusive characteristic of right-wing conservative governments. The extreme left also levels offence at the press in order to avoid accountability to society.

See the interview below:

Conectas – According to a report by Fenaj, 58% of attacks on the press recorded in 2019 were by President Jair Bolsonaro. How is Abraji observing and monitoring the onslaught on these professionals?

Marcelo Träsel –Abraji has been monitoring both verbal and online threats and aggression, as well as other types of violation of the freedom of the press for some years now, before we had even imagined Bolsonaro would be president. 

We started to pay more attention around 2013 when the protests started. At the beginning they were about the free fare movement and ended up evolving into wider issues. We were already surprised at that time by the aggression shown by some groups towards reporters. There has always been tension between social movements and journalists. For example, here in Rio Grande do Sul, reporters have been viewed with some wariness by leftist movements, but never to the point of having to hide their press passes. In 2018 we were taken aback by online aggression. We have noticed that this type of persecution almost always comes from groups that are more aligned with the conservative right-wing. 

Since before Bolsonaro became president we had noticed that it was a serious problem. So, on 1 January we already had hundreds of cases on record. Of course, with Bolsonaro this type of behaviour gained a more powerful megaphone, as he has used his voice, from his privileged standpoint, and has legitimised and encouraged this type of behaviour among his militancy, evangelical and neo-Pentecostal groups, anarcho-capitalists and other groups.

Conectas – In the specific case of the Globo reporter, the president made a threat of physical aggression. How do you think this may serve as an incentive to his more radical supporters to take up his comment and actually commit this type of violence?

Marcelo Träsel – At the very least, it certainly legitimises violent action. At the end of the day the president is always an example. In this case, he has been giving bad examples. When he makes a verbal threat of physical aggression, this signals to his supporters that this is legitimate and acceptable. In a democracy, threatening to hit a journalist is serious, as it is if the president of the Republic makes a positive speech about illegal mining or timber extraction. This signals to loggers and miners that nothing will happen to them, that inspections will not be taken seriously and it becomes acceptable. Discourse always has a big impact on society.

Conectas – What is the intention of those who attack the press in this way?

Marcelo Träsel – I believe the only intention that someone could have is to avoid accountability to society. The age-old strategy of killing the messenger. After all it is not the press who are being accused of alleged illegalities. In general, the press have been recounting investigations that are being carried out by the police and Public Prosecution. They publicise cases that are in progress in the legal system. Journalists are acting in the name of society and calling for the president to explain himself, indeed, like any other public servant and he especially owes the public an explanation about his activities and about the people connected to him, as he was elected with 50 million votes. This is normal in a democracy.

Conectas – What effect does Bolsonaro have by making the press the enemy of the country, in terms of the credibility of outlets and journalists in the eyes of the public?

Marcelo Träsel – I don´t think this is a big problem because, frankly, anyone who is swayed by this discourse already thought the press had no credibility. This is usually the type of person who nowadays gets their information via WhatsApp.

Of course, up to a point there may always be somebody who had never stopped to think about it and may start to think that Globo, for example, manipulates information, this type of thing. But in truth this discourse provides the raw material for a smear campaign. This is what happened at the door of the Alvorada Palace. The president said some silly thing or another, this was filmed and his supporters edited the video so that it looked as though Bolsonaro was mocking a particular journalist and reinforced the idea that there was a media conspiracy against the government. 

It is worth highlighting that this is not just a problem of the conservative right. The left also employ this discourse, stating that the CIA is controlling the media and this type of thing. In fact, this is one point on which the extreme left and the extreme right converge. 

Conectas – For a member of the press who is on the receiving end of frequent attacks either by the head of state or by his supporters, what is the best way to behave and to protect themselves?

Marcelo Träsel – It is worth mentioning that Abraji has security guidelines for covering protests and protection on social networks, which for the most part apply to this situation at the Alvorada Palace. 

Firstly, the attack should be reported in some way so that there can be a lawsuit and a request for compensation lodged with the courts, should the reporter come to harm in this type of assault. Abraji has an agreement with the OAB (Brazilian Bar Association), so journalists can take these cases to Abraji where they will receive support and free legal assistance in the initial phases of a lawsuit.

Another important point is to try to keep calm and it is recommended that they should distance themselves from social networks and ask a trustworthy friend to manage their networks, so they do not suffer psychologically. 

It also important that professional colleagues demonstrate solidarity and publicly come out in defence of the victim, and most importantly the company itself should do this. I mean the directors of the company: “if not even the company itself trusts the work of reporters why should a listener or reader do so?”

I think it is difficult for a journalist in Brazil, where salaries are not high, to seek justice individually and to file lawsuits, paying from their own pockets. It is good when the communication companies get their legal departments to act on behalf of the employee. As I see it, it has a great educational effect when one of these anonymous people, sitting at a keyboard, receives a summons to stand before a judge and provide clarification on their actions.

Conectas – As well as offences and threats levelled by public authorities, we have social networks as the principal means of amplifying hate speech against the press. How should society act in this scenario?

Marcelo Träsel – Above all, journalists must take care to protect their personal information on the internet. In the case of Patrícia Campos Mello, for example, her personal details were exposed and these were used to threaten and embarrass her. 

In terms of society´s response to this type of aggression, in the first place, apart from the president of the Republic, there are two other authorities that should act as moderators and it seems to me that the Judiciary and Legislative powers could carry out this moderation in defence of freedom of speech and the press, as an emphatic response to the president when he behaves in this way. 

It is also fundamental that other groups and institutions come out in defence of journalism. Over the last year and a half, Abraj has been making alliances with other institutions, such as the OAB. We have held events with lawyers´ associations, that work with electoral rights, with Artigo 19 and we now participate in Rede Voces del Sur, that brings together organisations from all over Latin America.

Abraji has also been taking a stand and putting diplomatic pressure on governments in other countries when there are violations. Last week we signed a letter against a measure by the Paraguayan government that is threatening two journalists from the newspaper, ABC Color with imprisonment, because of a denouncement of a government minister. Diplomacy is not magic. It takes up time and results are slow.

Conectas – What have been Abraji´s principal actions in responding to threats and aggression against journalists?

Marcelo Träsel – We are turning to supranational organisations like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We have made some denouncements of situations that we consider detrimental to freedom of expression in the press.

We are also participating in Supreme Federal Court actions, as amicus curiae. One of the cases we are participating in is that of Alex Silveira, a photojournalist who was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet, fired by the São Paulo Military Police, while he was covering a protest in 2000. Abraji is now amicus on this lawsuit and we believe we can help draw attention to how protests are repressed and to the state´s lack of responsibility. 

Another lawsuit in which Abraji is acting as amicus is an emblematic case of freedom of expression involving the Festa do Peão de Boiadeiro de Barretos (a large rodeo festival in the state of São Paulo) against a group of animal rights defenders who were campaigning for a boycott of the event and are now being sued for moral damages. 

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