Authorities' blocking of outlets on Twitter constitutes discrimination against journalists, say experts
  • 07.07
  • 2021
  • 12:24
  • Pedro Teixeira**

Liberdade de expressão

Acesso à Informação

Authorities' blocking of outlets on Twitter constitutes discrimination against journalists, say experts

A survey conducted by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) shows that, in addition to blocking 69 journalists, the account of President Jair Bolsonaro (non-party) on Twitter already vetoed six media outlets. For specialists consulted by Abraji, the new strategy signals a clear impediment to the work of press professionals and a discriminatory act.

By the monitoring carried out by Abraji until this Monday (Jul.05.2021), the president blocked, in chronological order, the websites The Intercept Brasil, DCM, Aos Fatos, Congresso em Foco, Repórter Brasil and O Antagonista. In addition to Jair Bolsonaro, three other authorities holding public office also barred the access to four outlets, totaling 10 journalistic companies blocked.

Although he does not consider blocking a classic form of censorship, journalist and writer Bernardo Kucinski states that “an authority or public body, which systematically uses a digital system such as Twitter to communicate with the public, denies access to its account to a journalist, besides to make difficult the work of newsgathering, it configures an authoritarian, punitive and discriminatory gesture''.

Kucinski is a retired professor at the Escola de Comunicações e Artes da Universidade de São Paulo, ECA-USP (School of Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo) and was one of the first journalists to denounce the torture practiced by the State during the dictatorship. He wrote Pau de Arara: Violência militar no Brasil (Pau de Arara¹: military violence in Brazil, in free translation) and Jornalistas e Revolucionários (Journalists and Revolutionaries, in free translation), about the alternative media that were active in the period of democratic rupture.

As the professor points out, even though it is not possible to compare the paradigms of digital media with those of the pre-internet classic press, the current government has made journalistic coverage of its administration difficult, by forbidding access to information published on social networks.

“Given that one of the central characteristics of the digital medium is the permanent and continuous interlocution and dialogue, the authority that opts for vertical, unidirectional, non-dialogued communication is demonstrating to be especially authoritarian and backward", he evaluates.

For Kucinski, the barrier imposed by Bolsonaro on journalists and media signals a discontinuity in the routine of the government's institutional communication. It was the president himself who selected these platforms as the official communication channel in his inaugural speech, delivered in front of the Planalto Palace, in Dec. 2018.

Repórter Brasil, a non-profit organization that has been working on human rights coverage for 20 years and is one of the most awarded investigative journalism sites in the country, had been following administrative acts of the federal government and highlighted the commitment of the president to the approval of some laws.

“The blockade hinders our work by not allowing a direct contact with the president's account. It makes it impossible to actively cover what Bolsonaro has published or how he interacts with his followers”, says Marcel Gomes, executive director of the NGO.

Since the beginning of Bolsonaro's administration, the Repórter Brasil team has faced difficulties in listening to the government on reports that present denunciations. In addition to the lack of response from the press offices of federal agencies, the barring on Twitter turned the monitoring of government actions into an issue. “As the government makes these accounts its official channel, it seems that it has given itself the right to pay less attention to the press”, sums up Gomes.

For the editorial director of O Antagonista, Mario Sabino, Jair Bolsonaro's attitude is incompatible with his position:

“By vetoing us, as well as other media outlets, Bolsonaro demonstrates, once again, his dissatisfaction with the supervisory role of the independent press, which refuses to receive state sponsorship. Fortunately, thanks to vigorous Brazilian democracy, authoritarian figures like the president's no longer have the power to storm up newsrooms in order to silence them and shut down newspapers," says Sabino.

In the viewpoint of the executive director for Latin America of the international organization Article 19, Denise Dora, beyond the risks to freedom of expression, the blocking of citizens perpetrated by authorities on Twitter can reinforce an intolerant and dialogue-averse culture.

Dora recalls that white supremacist movements nurtured conspiracies in closed atmosphere, shielded from critical mass:

“About 50 years ago, a tiny cell of the Ku Klux Klan, in the interior of the United States, was installed in small wooden shacks. Two or three people who had a password would get inside to articulate actions with wide repercussions. There it was an isolated environment where people would come to listen, to be influenced and to participate in hate speech," compares the lawyer.

When contacted by Abraji through the Special Secretariat of Communication (Secom), the President of the Republic and his staff had not commented as of the publication of this report.

The father's example

Soon after the new wave of blockades to press vehicles, the son of president-elect and councillor [of Rio de Janeiro] Carlos Bolsonaro (Republicanos party) followed his father's lesson and punished UOL Confere and Congresso em Foco with the barrier.

"In the Block Bingo of the Bolsonaro family, we already hit two numbers. We were blocked by @jairbolsonaro and now by congressman @carlosbolsonaro", points out Congresso em Foco's tweet.

For the website specializing in coverage of national politics, the reason was not clear, it was only carried out a week after the president banned the Twitter account of the portal. Jair Bolsonaro had blocked the site which had published on Mar.31.2021 an editorial in defense of the president's impeachment, on Jun.11.2021.

In turn, UOL's verification team questioned the councillor about the reason for the blockade, but the president's son did not answer the questions.

In the view of UOL's Content Director, Murilo Garavello, "it is regrettable that politicians who exercise public mandates flee from scrutiny and try to silence journalism and the contradictory, which are fundamental for democracy."

The other two authorities that obstructed media outlets' access to their Twitter belong to the government or its support base.

São Paulo state deputy Gil Diniz (no party) embargoed UOL Confere after a check showed that the congressman known as “Carteiro Reaça” had omitted information in a post in which he defended the government's actions during the process of purchasing the vaccine from Pfizer.

According to the president of the Digital Journalism Association (Ajor) and co-founder of the Agência Pública, Natália Viana, the blockaded organizations carry out a journalism of excellence and investigate all powers, upsetting those in government. “The digital revolution has multiplied the number of channels that are doing precisely what is at the root of journalism,” she states.

“The president's Twitter account is used for official announcements, then blocking is a discriminatory practice and an affront to the principles of transparency, access to information and press freedom. As we know, a free and diverse press is essential to safeguard democracy,” adds Viana.

Apart from the native digital outlets, the Folha de S.Paulo culture section, which has covered the sector for more than six decades, was also banned. The Special Secretary of Culture, Mário Frias, blocked the Ilustrada and other journalists covering the mandate of the former actor from soap opera Malhação after the publication of a series of reports on the dismantling of a civil society commission that analyzed projects under the Rouanet Bill (that encourages companies to invest part of their income tax in culture).

How to prevent the blockades

The Brazilian State has no law or jurisprudence in force that regulates the action of authorities on social networks. Bill 2630 - better known as the Bill of Fake News -, approved by the Senate and pending in the House of Representatives, would make the blockades illegal.

The human rights lawyer at Media Defence, an organization that assists journalists legally, Carlos Gaio, evaluates that the illegal device could reduce damages related to the arbitrariness of politicians in the digital environment. But, like Abraji, he believes that the Fake News Bill has dangerous sections for freedom of expression and demonstration.

“The ideal would be not to need a specific law for the case. Jurisprudence supported by fundamental guarantees should be enough. The politicians themselves should act according to the liturgy that their positions demand”, declares the lawyer, who spent more than a decade at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

He cites European Union case law and the US Supreme Court decision that banned Donald Trump from blocking journalists as successful cases on the topic.

In Apr.2018, Media Defence intervened as amicus curiae (friend of the court, interested third party) in a lawsuit regarding an authority's banning of a press professional in Poland. The mayor of the city of Ciechanów blocked a reporter on his Facebook page, who sought justice. The case has not yet been heard by the highest legal court in the country. If a politician is prohibited by the Polish courts from prevent the reporter's access, it could become a favorable precedent for freedom of expression and press in the country.

Currently, Media Defence is supporting Abraji in the implementation of a Legal Protection Center for Journalists, in order to fund lawsuits brought against press professionals in Brazil.

In Brazil, journalists and other citizens of various lines of work blocked by authorities on Twitter have already resorted to legal and administrative actions to try to unblock them. On Jun.14.2021, the injunction of lawyer Ronan Wielewski Botelho at the STF [Federal Higher Court] was denied by Minister Dias Toffoli. The piece of legislation was based on the case of the Congresso em Foco website, mentioned above.

“The defendant [Jair Bolsonaro], by blocking the group Congresso em Foco, a legalized journalistic media, actually blocked the Brazilian citizens, and the petitioner”, argues the lawyer in the writ of mandamus.

Toffoli preferred to wait for the definitive position of the collegiate on the subject. The first injunction on the merits was filed in Sep.2019 and awaits the court's verdict until today.

As Carlos Gaio analyzes, these processes should receive faster judgments due to the instantaneous constraints on fundamental rights caused by the blockade. “It's not a difficult decision,” he opines.

Abraji's monitoring

According to the monitoring carried out by Abraji since Sep.2020, when all the authorities that impose restrictions on journalists on social networks are added up, there are now 247 blockades. This number exploded after the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro. Until 2018, there were only 25 journalists banned in the middle, five of them by the head of the Executive Branch. Abraji's survey is supported by the Open Society Foundations.

Due to the increase in cases, a joint campaign by Abraji and Congresso em Foco launched the website Sweetblock, which detects upon registration whether a citizen has been blocked by an authority. If so, the platform generates a cryptography-based artwork inspired by cake recipes published by journalists at the time of the dictatorship instead of materials censored by the regime. Until Jul.05.2021, the action had generated 390 crypto arts, in addition to having been awarded the Bronze Lion in Cannes.

¹ Pau de Arara is a instrument of torture.

*Photo via Agência Brasil

**Translated by Cau Duarte

Assinatura Abraji