by Isabela Carrozza Joia
If you are fond of dystopias, chances are you that you’ve come across the book by George Orwell called “1984”. In his work, Orwell describes a society that lives between ignorance, control and surveillance, all maintained by “the Party”. One of the main quotes of the book is the Party’s slogan that reads: “He who controls the past, controls the future: he who controls the present controls the past.” While this passage can be interpreted in different ways, it is also one that can illustrate the current state of journalism in Brazil.
Press freedom is something relatively new in Brazil. From 1964 to 1988, the country lived through a military dictatorship during which civil rights not only ceased to exist, but when the press was constantly being censored. Despite this, journalists found a way to report on the censorship without being censored for it. When opening a newspaper, you could see mundane news and, alongside it, different, or sometimes the same, recipes for cakes, recipes that made no sense, or that had no clear instructions on how to bake or to prepare it. It was a way for the press to say that big and important information was there, but the government had censored it.
As Brazil went through redemocratization in the 1990’s, the press could then break free from the chains established by dictatorship. As years passed, Brazil continued to go through different political, social and economic crises, but it seemed like a free press had been established. However, in the present day, Brazil ranks 107 on the World Press Freedom Index, in which in the past two years, it fell five positions.
This is no coincidence. The situation worsened after a far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected in 2018 and took office in 2019. Since then, “the Party’s” Orwellian slogan seems increasingly closer to reality. Bolsonaro is known for his controversial statements that are full of prejudice against minorities, that incite violence against them and that promote disinformation. Above all, he is known for speaking in favor of the military dictatorship, a past that he reframes as economically developed and publicly safe, despite its proven record of violence, torture and censorship. After all, the ones that control the past, rewrite the future.
Moreover, Bolsonaro does not hold back his aversion to journalists. He continuously doubts their work and launches attacks on them. In August 2020, a reporter asked him a question about his son being involved in a corruption scandal, to which he responded “I feel like punching you in your mouth, okay?“. As a result, the President’s supporters took the social media by spreading more attacks against the media and inciting violence against journalists. This instance is just one example of the 22 direct attacks to journalists in 2020 alone, alongside 105 direct attacks to the media in general.
Although Brazil is not living in a military dictatorship, censorship has taken other paths to concretize. According to Reporters Without Borders, Brazil ranks low on the index due to the constant reported violence against journalists that work on sensitive matters related to political scandals and organized crime. Furthermore, judicial proceedings also have a way of acting as a censorship mechanism, in which “many investigative reporters have been subjected to abusive judicial proceedings”.
The most recent case in that matter was the subpoena of two well-recognized journalists in the country for reporting on the current investigation regarding the President’s son, the same case that made Bolsonaro say he wanted to punch that journalist. In this topic, the President of the Brazilian Bar Association stated that their “subpoena to testify about news coverage is an affront, albeit symbolic, against the free press. And the symbols cannot be ignored. There are pens that weigh. But the Constitution weighs much more.”
Apart from the judicial proceedings, which are primarily driven by government officials and their circle of influence, media professionals are having more trouble day after day in accessing official information. Government officials are restricting access to their social media feeds by blocking journalists, which some of them even state with pride. According to Folha de São Paulo, one of the main news outlets in Brazil, since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, at least 13 measures have been taken to reduce press access to information. One of them concerns the current COVID-19 crisis, in which the Health Ministry restricted the disclosure of data concerning the number of confirmed cases and deaths. When this happened, six big media outlets in Brazil united for the first time to bring the fact-checked data on the current pandemic situation to the public by taking fragmented data from different state’s health secretaries. The government eventually took a step back on this matter and continued to report on the COVID-19 numbers, but in this and in many other issues, the lack of transparency is evident.
Orwell’s quote, then, takes another level. By controlling access to information in the present, it is also a way to rewrite past history. If it is not being reported, it did not happen. If it is not being discussed, it never took place. Censorship takes many facets. It is more than publishing cake recipes in newspapers to silently manifest when it happens. It is having fear when publishing something against the powerful, and wondering about its judicials repercussions. It is to be constantly batting against a system that discredits your story, or that hampers access to all the information.
Orwell wrote the power of controlling the past in 1984, but these days, it might as well apply to the 2020 present in Brazil.
Letters from the Editors is a rotating column, written by The Graduate Press Editorial Board. It is meant to serve as a platform to discuss regional, personal, and political issues surrounding the role of a journalism in their respective societies.