Bolsonaro critics face ‘intimidation’

Surge in legal and extra-legal moves to stifle dissent against President: activists

March 21, 2021 10:34 pm | Updated 10:34 pm IST - Rio de Janeiro

Dissent note:  Demonstrators taking part in a protest against Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro  in Brasilia last week.

Dissent note: Demonstrators taking part in a protest against Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia last week.

When the police knocked on Brazilian influencer Felipe Neto’s door to tell him he was being investigated for threatening national security, he says his heart skipped a beat.

His crime, it turned out, was accusing far-right President Jair Bolsonaro of “genocide” for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left over 290,000 people dead in Brazil.

Brazilian police are also investigating former Cabinet Minister Ciro Gomes for calling Mr. Bolsonaro a “thief” over corruption allegations, sociologist Tiago Costa Rodrigues for calling him a “liar,” and even, according to news site Brasil 247, an otherwise unknown citizen named Roger Orsi who shared an anti-Bolsonaro meme on Facebook.

Other critics of the President complain of less-official backlash, in the form of “online militias” of Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters, who launch coordinated attacks and smear campaigns against his perceived opponents on social media.

Lawyers and human-rights activists warn Brazil is seeing a surge in legal and extra-legal moves to stifle dissent against Mr. Bolsonaro, in some cases with legislation and tactics dating back to the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship — for which the President is openly nostalgic.

“The President, his family, his administration and his followers... are blatantly promoting an intimidation campaign against his political opponents, as if free thought and free speech did not exist in this country,” newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo said in an editorial on Saturday.

Facing backlash

Mr. Neto, a 33-year-old YouTube star, rose to international prominence last year with an opinion video for the New York Times in which he called Bolsonaro the world’s worst president.

In his latest jab, he called Mr. Bolsonaro “genocidal,” in reference to the President’s attacks on lockdowns, face masks, vaccines and other expert advice for containing Covid-19 deaths.

That led Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Carlos, a Rio de Janeiro city councilman, to ask police to open an investigation against Mr. Neto.

“How would he like me to refer to the President, who called the biggest pandemic we’ve seen in years a ‘little flu,’ who encourages crowds and tells people to go out like there’s nothing happening?” said Mr. Neto.

Support for the influencer soon poured in on social media and beyond, making the phrase “Bolsonaro genocida” a top trending topic in Brazil. A judge blocked the investigation, ruling it was legally baseless.

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