Right wing military police sue and Ministry of Justice “investigate” Brazilian cartoonists amid a wider attack on freedom of expression.
In the last twenty-four hours two very alarming stories have broken out of Brazil and gained the attention of the world’s cartooning community.
As reported by Folha de S.Paolo, the paper and four of its contributing cartoonists – Alberto Benett, Laerte Coutinho, João Montanaro and Claudio Mor – are being sued by Defenda PM, a conservative military police body, who say cartoons published in December 2019 “embarrassed” their members. The cartoons were critical of reported incidents of brutality, a record of violence that has quite tellingly been omitted from government records.
CRNI has been in touch with one of the named cartoonists and he has confirmed that all are well, in relatively good spirits and being fully supported by their newspaper.
“We know that it is a subtle intimidation, as always, a strategy to try to censor cartoonists. However due to the gloomy climate that has befallen Brazilian democracy these threats seem to be the prelude to a difficult environment for the press and journalism critical to the government. The Military Police is the main ally of the government, as well as the Armed Forces. And if there’s one thing they can’t stand it’s the free press.”Alberto Benett, cartoonist
In a second incident, blogger Ricardo Noblat and cartoonist Renato Aroeira face a criminal investigation for “false imputation, slander or defamation” following a cartoon that portrays Bolsonaro daubing paint over a medical red cross, making it a swastika.
A rigorous defence has been mounted by the opposition party Rede Sustentabilidade (REDE), lodging a petition with the federal supreme court stating that comparisons between the current administration and a fascist regime cannot be considered slander and are constitutionally protected: “There is no complete factual disconnect – to say the least – in the association made by the cartoonist and reproduced by the journalist. No citizen is responsible for the immorality and disgust [expressed in] the references [made about] the first echelon of the government. Journalists and cartoonists cannot be pursued by the state apparatus simply for performing their duties.”
In addition cartoonists across South America have been quick to create similar images in solidarity with Aroeira and an open letter signed by several cartoonists’ and journalists’ membership organisations states: “The function of any good cartoon is, through humor, to reflect and comment on events of interest to the citizen.The cartoon is not created from nothing but is a thermometer for what the people say on the streets. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that a cartoon can be ’embarrassing’ when what should embarrass and shock public opinion are the facts that generated it. We know that throughout history several cartoons and caricatures have resulted in persecution and reprisals for the artists who created them which attests to the scale that humor can achieve in society.”
Both incidents form part of the ongoing decline of media freedom in Brazil and represent excellent examples of precisely the phenomena CRNI and our allies at Cartooning For Peace and Cartoon Movement warned about at the start of the week – creeping authoritarianism, isolationism, exceptionalism and hypersensitivity to criticism that, combined with measures taken to combat COVID-19, have created a highly inhospitable working environment for cartoonists everywhere.
“Jair Bolsonaro’s premiership has been a disaster for free expression in Brazil. Like so many ‘strong men’ he and his allies evince pathetically thin-skinned responses to satire, unable to tolerate a level of exposure to pictorial ridicule that leaders elsewhere barely register as background noise. At one time we looked to Brazil as a leading and progressive nation within the South American continent. No longer.”Terry Anderson, Executive Director, CRNI
CRNI was made aware of an increasing hostility toward cartoonists in Brazil last year when Porto Alegre’s mayor censored an exhibition at short notice and, in a truly bizarre incident, a local parliamentarian physically attacked a cartoon by Carlos Latuff a few months later.
Index on Censorship’s tracker of incidents during the coronavirus pandemic has logged several problems in Brazil, from Bolsonaro claiming the virus was a media trick through to the supreme court compelling his government to release accurate death statistics. Reporters Without Borders demoted Brazil in their 2020 rankings, saying the president had been “feeding a climate of hate and suspicion towards journalism” and Human Rights Watch described an administration “openly hostile toward nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those defending the environment and Indigenous peoples’ rights.”
CRNI awaits further developments and expresses its support for all speaking truth to power in Brazil.