Brazil’s Bolsonaro Increases Threats Against Democracy Ahead of Election

Jul 6, 2022
1:17 PM

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

The month of June ended with the release of the NGO Article 19 report which states that the world is becoming increasingly authoritarian. The figures are frightening. Only 15 percent of the world population lives in countries considered truly democratic, where the population can receive and share information safely and freely.

The world has regressed back to 1989 levels in terms of democracy, and Brazil is one of the countries where the circulation of information is already considered restricted and democracy is failing. 

Eighty percent of the world’s population lives with less freedom of expression than a decade ago. In 2011, Brazil was in the “open” category along with other healthy democracies. In 2016, the country fell to “less restricted.” Now, in 2021, Brazil has been categorized as “restricted.”

Without a doubt, Brazil has become an increasingly less democratic, violent, and dangerous country —for journalists and human rights and environmental activists in particular— but common citizens living in Brazilian favelas as well.

In fact, the month started with the shooting of a four-year-old girl, hit in the head while buying popcorn with her mother in Rio de Janeiro as police officers and militiamen were engaged in a gunfight. This happened a few days after Rio de Janeiro’s second-worst favela massacre in which the police killed 25 people.

A Journalist and An Activist Are Murdered

Soon after, on June 5,  the country awoke to news of the disappearance of English journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenist Bruno Pereira, who were on a trip together to the remote Javari Valley, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Both were known for their love for the Amazon and its Indigenous populations, for their writing on sensitive topics related to the region, and for being active in the preservation of the area.

After days of searching, their bodies were found on June 15. They were shot and murdered by illegal fishermen, and now a few experts and activists clearly see the works of Jair Bolsonaro’s government in their deaths, as both men were threatened by the same type of criminals that have been constantly supported and encouraged by President Bolsonaro: illegal fishermen, illegal loggers, illegal miners, and so on. Also, drug traffickers have also been active in the region, which has little police or army presence.

According to the Pastoral Land Commission, at least 36 Indigenous leaders and public servants suffered death threats in 2021 for their connections to the Indigenous cause. Federal Police chief Alexandre Saraiva told TV network Lobo News that various politicians are being paid by criminals in the Amazon to facilitate illegal activities in the region—many of them allies of the president.

It’s important to remember that Bolsonaro has been also reducing the presence, effectiveness, and number of public servants of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI in Portuguese), responsible for protecting Indigenous tribes. The Vale do Javari region has the largest number of isolated tribes in the country, and Pereira, the missing Brazilian indigenist, was one of the main people responsible for protecting them until he was removed from his post at Bolsonaro’s behest by the then-minister of justice, former judge Sérgio Moro—now an enemy of the president.

And speaking of Sérgio Moro, he had plans of running for president, but he did not receive support from his party, Brazil Union. But even if he wanted to seek a seat in parliament, he can’t, since the Regional Electoral Court of São Paulo denied the transfer of his electoral title from Paraná to São Paulo. According to the court, the transfer was done in an irregular manner.

The delay in sending out search teams and the lack of will in the search for Phillips and Pereira did not help the government’s image over the days when Indigenous people effectively carried out the search for their friends.  

At least eight people are being investigated by the Federal Police, accused of being behind the murders of Phillips and Pereira. Despite this, the administration was quick to say that there was no one calling the shots or behind the deaths but that everything was an isolated action against the two men, which has raised suspicion that Bolsonaro might be manipulating and interfering with the Federal Police’s work.

The deaths of Phillips and Pereira shocked the country and further expose the danger that activists and journalists face when carrying out their work in Brazil.

Vouching for Corruption

Back in March, Latino Rebels reported on a corruption scandal involving then-Minister of Education and evangelical fundamentalist pastor Milton Ribeiro, accused of favoring fellow pastors in the release of funds for municipalities through bribes. Ribeiro resigned that month, but now he has been arrested along with other pastors accused of embezzling education funds. They are all close allies of President Bolsonaro, who said a few months ago that he vouched for Ribeiro and important figures in the fundamentalist evangelical milieu.

Ribeiro is accused of passive corruption, prevarication, and influence peddling. And as with the case of the investigation into the murders of Phillips and Pereira, accusations of Bolsonaro’s interference with the Federal Police have also emerged. Bruno Calandrini, the police chief responsible for the arrest of Ribeiro, said in messages sent to colleagues that there was “interference in the conduct of the investigation,” that it would have been “prejudiced,” and that he would not have “autonomy to conduct the inquiry with independence.”

In a telephone interception made by the Federal Police, Ribeiro claims he received a call from Bolsonaro who had a “feeling” Ribeiro was going to be targeted by police.

‘Tropical Trump’

Bolsonaro’s interference with Federal Police work raises concerns about possible interference in the electoral process as well, with a presidential election scheduled for October. Currently at second place in the polls, Bolsonaro may lose to former President Lula da Silva, but experts fear he will not accept the results and leave office—similiar to what we witnessed in the United States with former President Donald Trump, a Bolsonaro ally to whom the Brazilian president is often compared.

The UN itself has called for the independence of institutions, asking that the electoral process be democratic and without interference. Bolsonaro continues to speak about the supposed insecurity of the ballot boxesthreatening to deploy the Armed Forces to remain in power—as well as attacking the press and defending disobedience to the Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro has reason to worry. In June, he was ordered to pay 100,000 reais, or a little over $18,300, for collective moral damages against journalists in a lawsuit filed by the Union of Journalists of São Paulo. And he was again convicted by the São Paulo Court of Justice —he had already lost the case last year at first instance— for offending, using sexual insinuations, journalist Patrícia Campos Mello.

While Bolsonaro attacks journalists, sees his government shrouded in corruption, interferes with the work of the Federal Police, and threatens the country’s democracy, more than 33 million Brazilians go hungry and the economy shows no signs of improvement.


Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist with a Ph.D in human rights (focused on migration and diaspora). His portfolio is here. Twitter: @Tsavkko