Censorship, harassment, and misinformation characterise Brazil’s 2022 election

26 September 2022
A growing censorship crisis and harassment continue to characterise Brazil’s government-controlled public media organisation. Meanwhile, spreading misinformation is an increasing concern, especially in the lead up to the presidential election.
Brasilia TV Tower at sunset - Brasilia, Distrito Federal, Brazil. Credit: diegograndi/istock

A Brazilian politician has demanded an investigation into allegations raised by workers at the national state-administered media organisation, Empresa Brasil de Comunicação (EBC), who have claimed they are subject to ongoing harassment and bullying from management positions. The affected staff said this has created a culture of censorship and a climate of fear within the company. It comes with the presidential election scheduled for 2 October.

Allegations of censorship have dogged the company while Jair Bolsonaro has been president. But the issue surfaced again after Agencia Pública – an independent, investigative Brazilian journalism agency – revealed harrowing accounts of several EBC workers’ experiences of working under the increased harassment and censorship within EBC, especially among female staff. 11 of the 16 employees that shared their experiences were women.

Read more: Brazil: Dossier reveals trend of censorship at EBC

One notable case was about Rádio Nacional journalist Kariane Costa, who represents the interests of other employees as the employee representative of the EBC Board of Directors (Consad) – one of the bodies that makes up the management of EBC. Ms. Costa has reportedly been the target of arbitrary denouncements from management after reporting concerns of moral harassment from EBC staff. Her experiences have been subsequently raised by the President of the Human Rights Commission, Senator Humberto Costa, who is demanding an investigation into the moral harassment allegations at EBC.

Employees explained that if information does not align with management’s ideological line, is too critical of the government, or reports that would otherwise be considered of public interest – such as the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; climate change or indigenous issues; strikes or the economic crisis – they are labelled too sensitive or “taboo” to be published.

Such trends occurred in previous years under the former governments of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer. But since the impeachment of Rousseff in 2016, and under incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who leads the Liberal Party, conditions for workers have become “very [much] worse”, Carolina Baretto, who works for EBC, told PMA earlier this year. “Everything in EBC [is] like a dictatorship.”

How might the 2022 presidential elections impact EBC?

In the past year, Bolsonaro’s far-right administration has progressed with plans to privatise EBC, one of his election campaign promises. This has been met with a large outcry from current and former EBC workers and journalist unions. There is a real risk of privatisation being pursued if Bolsonaro is re-elected in this week’s election.

“It’s like a matter of life and death because if [Bolsonaro] wins the election, he will privatise the company, or even if he doesn’t privatise, we’ll stay with this practice of censorship. So, things must change because public communication is not [what] we are doing for a long time”, Ms. Baretto explained. Privatising the company “would be terrible, because it would be something that would compromise this chance of making a communication free of the market’s interests, economic power interests… that would give voice to those who don’t have [a] voice generally.”

As for public trust and journalistic integrity, Ms. Baretto said she believes that the public “trusts us [even] less than they used to in the past.”

Read more: Why Brazil’s public media must remain public

On the other hand, while there may still be some challenges if opposition candidate from the Workers’ Party, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), who was President of Brazil from 2003-2010, was re-elected, Ms. Baretto anticipated there being some improvements for EBC in terms of increased editorial independence and autonomy, the reinstatement of the Programming Council to discuss editorial problems, and a re-introduction of more agenda meetings and contact with civil society.

Spreading misinformation

Yet, as with the 2018 election, a “tsunami of misinformation” is defining this forthcoming election. Instant messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Telegram are widely used in Brazil. But a study by the Poynter Institute, revealed that, despite increased measures to combat the spread of dis- and misinformation and hate speech by the platforms, four in ten Brazilians receive disinformation daily. France 24 reported that in the this year’s presidential race, “both campaigns have resorted to disinformation as part of their communication strategy.”

A recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) also revealed that 79% of respondents from Brazil agreed that WhatsApp is problematic for spreading false or misleading information, and 59% believed that Facebook prioritises certain political views.

Steps to rebuild EBC

It is wholly undemocratic of any government representative or management staff within a public media organisation to abuse their authority by harassing workers and creating a fear of speaking out about wrongdoings. The climate of censorship also impedes on quality, watchdog journalism. We support calls for an investigation into the allegations, and this is imperative to restore public trust in EBC.

Moreover, the threat of privatisation looms over other public media organisations around the world, such as the publicly owned, commercially funded Channel 4 in the UK. What policy and decision-makers must realise is the quality content and service that citizens could lose if public media is to be privatised, not to mention the impact this will have on democracy.

This proves to be a critical election for EBC, for independent journalism, and for truth. President Bolsonaro, throughout his tenure, has exhibited hostility towards a free media. Given that the concept of public media is still not well-established in Brazil, a more supportive government and enhanced media literacy amongst the public are essential for a strong public media system and  democracy to thrive.

EBC must remain independent, public, and uncensored. PMA will monitor the impact of Brazil’s elections on EBC and offer support to workers.