Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s shockingly irresponsible and inflammatory verbal attacks on the media as he continues to deny the importance of the coronavirus epidemic, although it has affected Brazil more than any other country in Latin America.
After accusing the media of creating “hysteria” and causing panic ever since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Bolsonaro said on 22 March: “The population will realize soon enough that it has been deceived by the media.”
He again minimized the dangers of coronavirus on a national TV channel two days later, referring to it as a “little flu,” criticizing local officials who are calling for a lockdown, and accusing the media of creating an artificial chaos.“Much of the media (…) are spreading a feeling of fear by exploiting the large number of victims in Italy, a country with many elderly people and a climate completely different from ours” he said, calling this “a perfect scenario created by the media so that hysteria takes over our country.”
On 26 March, he humiliated the group of journalists waiting for him outside the Alvorada Palace, the president’s official residence in Brasilia. “Look, people of Brazil,” he said, pointing at the journalists. “These people say I’m wrong and that you should stay at home.” Turning towards the journalists, he added “What are you doing here? Aren’t you afraid of the coronavirus? Go home!”
“This radicalization and intensification of the attacks against the media is extremely disturbing”, said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “President Bolsonaro is again targeting the messengers instead of the real enemy and is become more and more irresponsible by the day. During this period of pandemic, the Brazilian government has more important things to do that persecute the media, whose news reporting is now more essential than ever.”
Although Bolsonaro appears more and more isolated, his radical discourse is being repeated and intensified by members of his family and some of the members of his government, including health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who described the media on 28 March as “sordid” and “toxic” and urged Brazilians to “turn of their TV sets off for a while.”
In an unprecedented move, two tweets in which Bolsonaro again questioned the point of a complete lockdown were deleted by Twitter from his official account on 29 March on the grounds that they violated the social media platform’s rules.
The president had posted videos on his account that showed him walking through the streets of Brasilia and mingling with the public – behaviour that completely contradicts his own government’s recommendations and those of the World Health Organization.
Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram followed suit on 30 March, deleting videos posted by Bolsonaro.
The social media platforms are also reportedly concerned about what those close to the president are posting. According to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, Twitter blocked the accounts of Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro (one of the president’s sons)and environment minister Ricardo Salles for 12 hours as a warning on the grounds that they had posted fake news and opinions liable to aggravate the pandemic.
Brazil is ranked 105th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.