(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has communication issues. Hardly a day passes when he doesn’t disparage the media, sometimes crassly targeting reporters he claims have mistreated him. Like his gringo alter ego in Washington, Bolsonaro tries to shape the message during improvised gaggles outside the presidential residence. And to ensure no one misbehaves, a security heavy in shades is on call, brandishing a smart phone to surveil the fourth estate.
The mise en scene doesn’t always work out. Just ask Carioca, the comedian from a friendly television network whom Bolsonaro cast as his double one day last week to leaven the mood.
Granted, Carioca had a thankless task: He appeared the morning after the official statistics bureau updated last year’s economic statistics. Instead of the 2.5% annual growth authorities touted at the start of last year, they showed that Latin America’s biggest economy expanded by just 1.1% in 2019. The real sank to below 4.60 to the dollar, a record low for the Brazilian currency, still the worst performer among emerging market currencies. Foreign investors have pulled nearly $10 billion from the Brazilian bourse this year, more than during all of 2019. Throw in the coronavirus, and Brazil is “looking at yet another year of frustrating growth,” said economist Claudio Frischtak of Rio de Janeiro’s Inter.B consultancy.
Rather than answering hard questions about what happened and the way forward, Bolsonaro deferred to his doppelganger, who clowned about in a faux presidential sash and offered up bananas to reporters.
While Bolsonaro might have meant to troll the press, the joke was on him. His stunt did little to blot out the bad news. Instead, it was just the most recent gratuitous attack on professional media to backfire, threatening to make him the victim of his own mal mots.
The loquacious former army captain actually owes his job to Brazil’s freewheeling media culture. He rose to the national stage thanks to incendiary Facebook posts and decorum-be-damned tweets that delighted his right-wing constituents. They still do, although government missteps have thinned his chorus of boosters from a year ago, according to a survey by AP Exata, a consultancy. Yet with every baseless barrage, Bolsonaro looks more like one of the overbearing lefty ideologues whom he vowed to banish from power.
Attacking independent journalism was populist gospel in Latin American during the 2000’s and early 2010’s, when willful leftwing leaders leaned on the courts and legislatures to circumscribe media companies and stifle critics, all under the salutary-sounding principle of “democratizing information.”
When authoritarian leaders didn’t outright repress independent media, as Daniel Ortega had in Nicaragua, they turned communications laws into the weapon of choice. Just some of the examples: The general Communications Law in Bolivia, Argentina’s Broadcast Law, and Ecuador’s Organic Media Law, which “created both editorial and financial havoc for independent news organizations,” the Committee to Protect Journalists found. The ebbing Pink Tide brought hopes of a freer press in some parts – Ecuador and Argentina – of Latin America. Leave it to Bolsonaro (and more recently, Bolivia’s caretaker martinet Jeanine Anez) to carry on the offensive from the right.
Last year, Bolsonaro personally lashed out at the press 119 times, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. His rightwing followers piled on, raising overall attacks on Brazilian journalism by 54% in 2019, the Brazilian Federation of Journalists reported in January. “Currently, there is a permanent threat to freedom of the press and the physical and moral integrity of journalists in Brazil,” Federation president Maria Jose Braga warned.
Bolsonaro has made character muggings his trademark, singling out women reporters. For instance, a leading political reporter for Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo, Patricia Campos Mello, has drawn a social media onslaught, mostly in the form of sexual slurs, in reprisal for hard-hitting stories on government-friendly troll farms and fake news.
It’s one thing to lean on media in nations where institutions and the rule of law are feeble. Brazil, for all its frailties, is not one of them. Except for Bolsonaro and his murder of digital crows, Brazilians have mostly repudiated such offenses. Some 47% of Brazilians disapprove of the president’s performance, slightly better than his ratings last August but more than 9 points below his numbers a year ago. About a third (34.5%) of Brazilians approve of his government. “Attacking the media with false accusations of a sexual nature is crass and amounts to defamation,” congressional speaker Rodrigo Maia said last month, calling for legal reprisals.
Bolsonaro may well be counting on such pushback to fuel his political agenda. Like any good Bonapartist, he’s encouraging his partisan claque to hit the streets for a nationwide protest this weekend to pressure congress, the Supreme Court and the media into conformity. His homies seem juiced, to judge by the video of a mounted medieval knight calling on “patriots” to rescue Brazil from communists, which went viral on the web. With Brazilian stocks having just suffered their worst beating in 21 years, entering a bear market, that’s not likely to work any better than sending in the clowns.
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Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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