RIO DE JANEIRO — Several weeks after publishing explosive reports about a key member of Brazil’s far-right government, U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald was called before a congressional committee to face hostile questions.
“Who should be judged, convicted and in prison is the journalist!” shouted congresswoman Katia Sastre, an ally of President Jair Bolsonaro.
And by some accounts that wasn’t an empty threat: A conservative website reported that federal police had requested that financial regulators investigate Greenwald’s finances. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and his Brazilian husband also say they have been receiving detailed death threats, calls for his deportation and homophobic comments in an increasingly hostile political environment.
Greenwald, an attorney-turned-journalist who has long been a free-speech advocate, has found himself at the centre of the first major test of press freedom under Bolsonaro, who took office on Jan. 1 and has openly expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship — a period when newspapers were censored and some journalists tortured.
“It’s a very concerning moment for press freedom in Brazil, especially those covering something so divisive as politics. We’ve seen an administration that vocally criticizes journalists with an open anti-press rhetoric,” said Natalie Southwick, the Central and South American program co-ordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Greenwald’s The Intercept news website last month published text messages purportedly showing then-judge and now Justice Minister Sergio Moro had improperly advised prosecutors in the corruption trial that jailed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The Intercept also alleged political bias by Moro and prosecutors in a sweeping corruption investigation that brought down many of the country’s business and political elite and turned Moro into a hero to many. The website said it got the leaked messages from an anonymous source and that it has “vast archive” of information it has not released.
Moro has dismissed its reports as sensationalist and said a “criminal group” was aiming to invalidate convictions handed down when he was a crusading anti-corruption judge. He later tweeted that The Intercept was “a site aligned with criminal hackers.”
The reports infuriated Bolsonaro’s backers.
During the June 25 hearing at the chamber’s Human Rights and Minorities Commission, lawmaker Carla Zambelli told Greenwald: “If you don’t prove this information, it is fake and you’re a liar. If it’s true, then you’re a criminal because you hacked someone’s phone.”
Greenwald responded: “The government’s party evidently has a lot of confusion about the journalism we did.”
Bolsonaro has repeatedly lashed out at the news media as untruthful, biased toward the left and for publishing “fake news,” though he has sometimes said he believes in a free press.
When the Supreme Court tried to censor a critical story about one of its justices, Bolsonaro conceded to reporters, “It’s better to have a press that’s sometimes flawed than to not have a press at all. … To the Brazilian press: We’re in this together.”
A special target of Bolsonaro’s ire has been the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. He sent 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.”
He has also referred to Globo, Brazil’s largest media company, as “the enemy” in WhatsApp messages that were leaked to the press.
As for The Intercept’s reporting, Bolsonaro has defended his justice minister, saying what Moro did for Brazil as an anti-corruption judge was “priceless.”
“We don’t know … how far they’re willing to go to fulfil this authoritarian vision that Bolsonaro has spent the last 30 years advocating,” Greenwald told The Associated Press, referring the president’s record in congress.
“They were elected based on a promise to change Brazil in multiple ways, including eroding core freedoms that a democracy requires in order to survive — and one of those is a free press,” said Greenwald.
While provincial journalists sometimes face grave dangers in Brazil — two owners of local media outlets were recently shot and killed in a coastal town outside Rio de Janeiro — the federal government in recent decades has rarely tried to stifle reporters. One exception was when then-President da Silva briefly tried to deport New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter in 2004 after a report that suggested he drank heavily.
Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is now accompanied by private security guards and says he and other staff at The Intercept have received sophisticated, detailed death threats that sometimes include private personal information.
Being the centre of controversy is nothing new for Greenwald, who was part of a team at The Guardian newspaper that won a Pulitzer for reports about government surveillance programs based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.
At recent nationwide demonstrations, backers of Bolsonaro and Moro repeatedly denounced Greenwald — often by focusing on his sexuality and his husband, leftist Brazilian congressman David Miranda. Bolsonaro himself has famously said that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.
“GlennGreenwald, get out of Brazil! You are disgusting,” read one sign. An online campaign with the hashtag #DeportGlennGreenwald was popular on Brazilian Twitter.
Pro-Bolsonaro members of Brazil’s congress have called for Greenwald’s imprisonment and deportation.
“I’m a good villain for this right-wing campaign,” Greenwald said. “I’m not a Brazilian citizen and therefore can be called a foreigner. I’m also a gay man in a country where anti-gay has become an important part of the political climate, and my husband is member of the socialist party … so it kind of checks off every box.”
When the website O Antagonista reported that police were asking financial regulators to investigate Greenwald’s finances, a Brazilian court ordered the regulators and the ministry that oversees them to clarify. The official responses left unclear whether there was an investigation.
Southwick said such a probe would be “an escalation of the attempts to delegitimize and undermine the Brazilian press.”
“At the very least it’s designed to intimidate, to create climate of tension and fear so that not just me and the journalists I’m working with, but all journalists think that if they report on powerful political officials they can be targeted by law enforcement and suffer retribution,” Greenwald said.
Ivana Bentes, a communications professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said the Bolsonaro camp is zeroing in on Greenwald, trying to put him into “the gallery of public enemies of Bolsonaro. They’re treating him as a political enemy when he is a journalist, which is very serious. They want to criminalize a journalistic investigation.”
Greenwald says he’s not sure when he’ll feel safe to go out in public in Brazil without security guards, if ever.
“Bolsonaro ran against the media, he talked about the Brazilian media as being agents of communism,” he said. “I think they see this as a very important test case to create a precedent and environment and climate that sends a strong signal that whoever opposes them through journalism or activism will suffer serious consequences.”
Anna Jean Kaiser, The Associated Press