“Freedom of expression is sacred,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared on Thursday in a press conference responding to a police raid of 29 comedians, pundits, and YouTubers as part of what the nation’s Supreme Court is dubbing an operation against “fake news.”
Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF) consists of 11 judges, or “ministers,” including one president who serves as the equivalent of America’s chief justice. Last year, STF President Dias Toffoli launched a criminal investigation against what the STF deemed “fake news” disparaging the institution, tasking Minister Alexandre de Moraes with leading the probe. Toffoli said at the time it was necessary to silence voices that “affect the honorability and security of the Supreme Court, its members, and family members.”
On Wednesday, federal police executed 29 search and seizure warrants in relation to the “fake news” probe, storming the homes of individuals who have publicly supported Bolsonaro. As the U.K. Guardian detailed, the victims of the raids were extremely diverse, many of them not having any official government or journalistic ties:
The operation’s targets were an eclectic and influential cast of hardcore Bolsonaristas including a former Femen activist-turned-anti-abortion-militant; a comic and musician whose repertoire includes a sexually explicit JK Rowling parody called “Harry Fucker”; a gun-toting, communist-bashing congressman; a hard-right blogger; and a multimillionaire retail magnate famed for placing giant replicas of the Statue of Liberty outside his stores.
Police seized the mobile phones and computers of those targeted to investigate if they have ties to an allegedly existing “fake news” syndicate that de Moraes has vowed to shut down.
One of those targeted, comedian Rey Biannchi, published a video on YouTube of the police storming his home in front of his family. A woman narrating the video, whom Biannchi later identifies as his wife, notes that police arrived around 6 a.m. to the home shortly before beginning to cry. Biannchi continues to film while the police inspect every room of his home.
“I’m going to sue the STF. An investigation for me, a comedian?” an incensed Biannchi asserts in the video. “I’m not afraid of anything. I pay my taxes. I don’t owe anyone anything.”
Others targeted include journalists affiliated with Terça Livre, a right-wing news and opinion site.
“What can I do against a minister of the Supreme Court? Laugh in his face?” Allan dos Santos, a Terça Livre journalist, told reporters when asked if he considered his commentary on the court a threat after the raid on his home. “If that’s a threat, that proves even more that we are no longer in a democracy. I’m going to keep laughing at the ministers. I’m going to keep laughing because they are pathetic.”
An incensed Bolsonaro spoke to journalists about the raids on Thursday, calling the day before a “very sad day” and vowing never to allow it to occur again.
“We want peace, harmony, independence, and respect. And democracy above all. Freedom of expression is sacred among you [the reporters] and also in the alternative media,” Bolsonaro said. “We respect the other branches [of government], but we demand to be respected, too. … invading the homes of innocent people, submitting their wives and children to humiliation, that is unacceptable.”
“We will not have another day like yesterday. Enough! We have reached the limit. I have the weapons of democracy in hand. I honor my commitments in the oath I took when I assumed the Presidency of the Republic,” Bolsonaro vowed, insisting the targets of the raids “are not bandits, they are not outlaws, they are not drug dealers.”
De Moraes, who authorized the raids, defended them on Wednesday by claiming that they do not hurt Brazil’s press freedoms as they are targeted towards online “bot” behavior, not individuals.
“Freedom of the press is not built by robots, what is built by robots is fake news,” de Moraes asserted. “By attacking journalists, by enabling these digital militias, if we allow that, what we will be allowing is an attack on press freedom.”
De Moraes had justified the extension of the investigation this year by claiming that it had unearthed social media “bot” accounts participating in the “standardized” dissemination of “fake news.” While some of those whose homes were raided this week are believed to be suspected of funding the “bot” operation, de Moraes did not clarify how his statement holds with flesh-and-bone content makers like Biannchi and dos Santos.
Terça Livre noted that the raids followed a bizarre attempt by the STF to censor another publication, the magazine Crusoé, for a report in which it linked STF President Toffoli to Marcelo Odebrecht, the head of the now-disgraced private contractor believed to have largely fueled the “Operation Car Wash” national corruption scheme that flourished under socialist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who appointed Toffoli to the court.
Terça Livre also argued that the raids violated the separation of powers, as “the [Brazilian] Constitution does not allow the STF to simultaneously investigate, accuse, and judge.”
Bolsonaro’s conservative supporters represent a vocal contingent of social media users in Brazil. Many have credited them with helping Bolsonaro defeat Lula’s handpicked successor, Fernando Haddad, after the former was sentenced to prison for corruption. In October 2018, shortly before the election that made Bolsonaro president, Facebook blacklisted 68 pages and 43 accounts linked to the Brazilian marketing group Raposo Fernandes Associados (RFA), a group that had supported Bolsonaro, for alleged “spamming.”