Free expression is increasingly under threat in Brazil. In January, forty-four press freedom and civil liberties organisations signed an open letter to the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, condemning his government’s attempts to bring criminal charges against the award-winning American investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald, now living in Rio de Janeiro, is a former lawyer and the author of four bestselling books on politics and law. His most recent, No Place to Hide, is about US surveillance policy and his experiences reporting on the leak by Edward Snowden of classified NSA documents. Greenwald is co-founder of the investigative news website The Intercept (which in 2016 launched a sister website, The Intercept Brasil) and a vocal critic of Bolsonaro. Greenwald moved to Brazil in 2005 and is married to the Brazilian congressman David Miranda, a member of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party. Greenwald claims that, as the only openly gay member of the lower house of the federal congress, Miranda is a prime target of the Bolsonaro movement.
Bolsonaro, a former army officer, first entered politics in 1988 and has been a member of nine different parties. He served in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, representing the state of Rio de Janeiro, between 1991 and 2018, before standing for president. He alarmed human rights groups with his electoral campaign, which was marked by hate speech, disinformation, violence against journalists and derisive remarks about human rights. According to Reporters Without Borders, ‘Bolsonaro has long been notorious for his populist and aggressive comments, his calls for a return to order and discipline, and his open attacks on women, gays and Brazil’s indigenous population.’ He has circulated his views widely online, bypassing the traditional media. A nationalist and a staunch defender of the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, Bolsonaro claimed in a 2016 radio interview that ‘the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture without killing’. In October 2018, Bolsonaro was elected president with 55.1 per cent of the vote. He was installed in office on 1 January 2019.
On 9 June, The Intercept published the first in a series of reports revealing apparent irregularities in Operation Car Wash, one of the largest corruption investigations in Brazilian history. Although its initial target was black-marketeers who use small businesses, such as petrol stations and car washes, to launder the profits of crime, investigators soon learned that these individuals were working on behalf of an executive at Petrobras, an oil company part-owned by the Brazilian state. This led prosecutors to uncover a vast web of corruption involving many members of Brazil’s political and business elites.
The reports published by The Intercept focused on a string of private chats between public officials working on Operation Car Wash that took place on the messaging app Telegram and were leaked by an anonymous source. The Intercept partnered with several other Brazilian media outlets, including Veja magazine and the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, on the story. The last of these is already unpopular with Bolsonaro: he posted a video message a week before the election saying that, if he won, Brazil would be ‘without lies, without fake news and without the Folha de S.Paulo’.
At the same time The Intercept published a series of damaging revelations about Sérgio Moro, the judge who until late 2018 presided over Operation Car Wash. These showed that Moro repeatedly collaborated with prosecutors during the investigation, which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of the left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on charges of corruption. The Intercept has also published text messages that show Moro displaying political bias while advising federal prosecutors involved in the case. Moro is now Bolsonaro’s minister of justice.
Since embarking on this investigation, Greenwald and his staff have been subjected to insults, slurs and death threats. False information designed to undermine the credibility of their reporting has also been spread. According to PEN, such harassment is typical of the difficulties encountered by all those in the media who investigate sensitive subjects in Brazil. Journalists are frequently the targets of intimidation and persecution campaigns.
On 21 January, federal prosecutors accused Greenwald of being part of a ‘criminal’ group that had allegedly hacked into the mobile phones of Brazilian prosecutors and judges in order to access private messages. The charges were clearly an attempt to intimidate Greenwald and his staff. In February, a Brazilian judge rejected the case against Greenwald. However, he accepted that six suspected hackers who were accused of leaking the messages to the journalist should face charges.
The claim that Greenwald’s activities constitute ‘cybercrimes’ contradicts a federal police report into hacking filed in December 2019, which cleared Greenwald of any wrongdoing and claimed that he had acted with ‘the highest level of professionalism, caution and responsibility’. The right of journalists to report on primary source materials documenting official malfeasance is critical to the workings of press freedom. Charging Greenwald with cybercrimes constitutes an attempt to silence him.
Writing in The Guardian, Greenwald and Miranda have described the impact all this has had on their home life: ‘the last nine months of our lives, since the beginning of those reports, have been filled with attacks of every kind. We have received detailed death threats containing personal, non-public data available only to the state. Many have been directed at our two sons, sometimes with gruesome detail.’ Both men are accompanied in public by armed security guards and travel in an armoured vehicle.
PEN and other press freedom groups are monitoring the situation but appeals are not recommended at this time.