On October 2nd, Brazilian voters participated in the first round of General Elections. Amidst fears that far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro may stage an autogolpe if the results are not what he’s hoping, it seems as though the fourth-largest democracy in the world may be on the cusp of backsliding. Also declining: Brazil’s freedom of the press. In the four years since Jair Bolsonaro’s initial election, Brazil’s press freedom score has dropped from 68.80 to 55.36; the CPJ’s 2022 report on Brazil to the UN establishes some of why this is happening. Brazil ranks 8th in the Global Impunity index due to murders of journalists being systematically ignored. Bolsonaro himself routinely attacks independent media. Most concerning: though a third of Brazilian people believe the news is doing an unsatisfactory job of reporting on important events, the number of Brazilian people who believe that reporting should be done without government censorship has actually decreased by 11% since 2015. This mirrors the opinions of people with populist views: populists worldwide are significantly less likely to believe that the media is important to a functioning government. This rapid decline in press freedom and trust in reporting serves as both a symptom and a harbinger of the democratic backsliding Brazil seems to be approaching: just as authoritarian regimes encourage the decline in press freedom, a decline in press freedom encourages authoritarian regimes.
A lack of freedom of the press is a well-known breeding ground for authoritarian regimes. If there is a lack of independent news media, there is a breakdown in vertical accountability: the answerability and punishment held to government agents by non-state actors. Because all aspects of freedom in democracy are intrinsically linked, though the backsliding of press freedom isn’t democratic backsliding itself, restrictions and growing mistrust of the media create a blindspot where backsliding occurs. This is evidenced worldwide: the average global freedom score follows the trend of the average global press freedom score. A lack of independent news media fosters mistrust in the most effective information dissemination source to the people, giving governments opportunities to make grabs for power or to begin transitioning into more authoritarian regimes.
Once democracy has begun to backslide, due to a lack of press freedom or existing weakness therein, governments use their power to further constrict press freedoms. This creates a positive feedback loop: the more the press is constrained, the faster the regimes become undemocratic, and so on. In 2004, Turkey’s government made it legal to prosecute journalists for reporting on “controversial” cases, among countless other laws and regulations restricting what could be published. These fundamental changes to democratic freedoms made it easier for the Turkish officials to increase their power in a previously democratic environment.
The most important effect of press restriction is polarization. Polarization gives way to populism, internally weakening democracy. An important example is the far-right sect in America which peaked during the Trump presidency. Brazil’s Bolsonaro idolizes Trump, even earning the nickname “Tropical Trump.” With the fears of Bolsonaro staging an autogolpe in the spirit of Trump’s 2021 coup attempt, it is important to look at America’s trajectory in terms of where Brazil is heading, and where they could go worse.
During the Trump presidency, the rhetoric from the government was heavily anti-independent news, boosting mistrust of the news in his supporters, and supporting “alternative” news, which reported fake or embellished stories, which created mistrust in the news for people who were not his supporters. By halfway through his time in office, more than three quarters of Americans, both democrats and republicans, stated that they could not agree with the other side on basic facts of issues facing the country. During the pandemic, 92% of Americans said that they were seeing made-up news about COVID, and most said that it caused confusion. By the end of his presidency, the vast majority of Americans agreed that fake news had major effects on the election outcome (though what news is ‘fake’ is widely contested), and around 90% of both democrats and republicans believed that the opposing party’s candidate winning would cause lasting harm to the U.S.
The Brazilian government is intentionally following America’s path of de-democratization. But protection of the media is an unparalleled defendant of democracy: access to NTV, the only independent media outlet, in Russia’s 1999 parliamentary elections significantly decreased support, turnout, and votes for the governmental party. Brazil’s backsliding in press freedom is foreboding in terms of an imminent backslide in democracy: the weak press freedom allowed Bolsonaro to establish antidemocratic policies, which allowed him to further constrict and foster mistrust in the news. With a few legislative changes and stopping the anti-media rhetoric coming from the government, Brazil can at least slow the prevention of media freedom, thus slowing the impending democratic backslide.
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