Authoritarianism’s rise and journalism’s fall are intersecting

Editor’s note: This column was originally published in The Boston Globe on October 28, 2022

Brazil’s runoff presidential election on Sunday is not only a fateful moment for the country’s democracy but a stark illustration of what happens when journalism and truth itself come under attack.

In Brazil, the United States, and many other corners of the world, a global recession in democracy is exacerbating the erosion of a free press. This is unfolding in India, Turkey, and the Philippines, to name a few countries that have had unprecedented assaults on press freedom from rising authoritarian regimes. In the United States, where two newspapers close every week, 70 percent of Republicans still believe false claims perpetuated by Donald Trump that Joe Biden is not the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. Brazil, the second-largest democracy in the Western Hemisphere, offers the most recent indication of just how high the stakes are.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has suggested he will not accept Sunday’s election results if he loses, pushing false narratives of election fraud hauntingly similar to what’s come to be known in America simply as Trump’s Big Lie. Polls indicate that Bolsonaro’s opponent, the former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is likely to win by a narrow margin. As in America, there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the voting system. (In Brazil, there’s no evidence of fraud at all.) Yet Bolsonaro’s false claims seem likely to lead to violence — an assault similar to the attack on the US Capitol or worse. Bolsonaro has said there are only three alternatives for his future, “to be arrested, to be killed, or victory,” and he has stated emphatically that he will not be arrested. He has openly threatened a military coup to stay in power.

It’s becoming harder for news media in Brazil to sort out Bolsonaro’s threats and disinformation. Media companies have seen their business models collapse with the rise of digital platforms that bring them virtually no revenue. At least one news outlet per month closed its doors in Brazil in 2021. Over half of Brazilian municipalities are news deserts, with no print or digital news publications, according to an Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas) survey in 2021.

With journalism in this weakened state, reporters are some of Bolsonaro’s primary targets. He has called journalists, who have uncovered trails of corruption in his administration, “communists,” “the extreme press,” and “the enemies of the people.” On social media, pro-Bolsonaro digital militias spread conspiracy theories claiming that the media is helping the Supreme Court and the left manipulate public opinion and rig the election. Reporters in Brazil have documented at least 66 cases of serious aggression against journalists this year, including physical violence and destruction of equipment. The most vitriolic personal attacks are aimed at women.

Moisés Naím, the author of the new book “The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century,” says Bolsonaro is following a playbook that authoritarian populists have used all over the world. They have weaponized social media platforms and messaging apps to reach audiences that elude traditional news organizations.

In India, Hindu nationalist-populist leader Narendra Modi has led an offensive against freedom of the press so intense that the country is no longer classified as a democracy and has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.

In Turkey, a crackdown on journalists by President Tayyip Erdoğan, who has concentrated power in his own hands and sought to muzzle a once vibrant free press, has forced the closure of at least 160 media outlets since 2016.

In the Philippines, under the far-right authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte and his successor Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the independent press has been targeted. Maria Ressa, who last year received the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous journalism exposing abuse of power and other acts of government corruption, was repeatedly arrested and tried for 10 different cases of libel — and she remains in an appeal process to this day.

In Brazil, the press has been unable to keep up with Bolsonaro’s massive disinformation machine. Nine months before the election, posts targeting elderly voters on Telegram, Facebook, and other platforms claimed that they would have to show “proof of life” by voting for Bolsonaro to keep receiving social benefits from the government. Misleading electoral ads from the Bolsonaro campaign reinforced the narrative. The story made headlines only after the first round of voting. It was too late: The number of voters over age 60 increased by 1 million this year since the previous election. “It is not possible to know how many of those votes went to Bolsonaro,” says journalist and political analyst Maria Cristina Fernandes, from Brazil’s Valor newspaper. “What we know is that Bolsonarism surpasses in focus, method, and agility the ability of institutions to control it.”

One of the answers to this crisis is to better support the local, independent news organizations that have emerged in the past decade in Brazil. There are efforts such as Projeto Comprova, a coalition of 43 Brazilian outlets working collaboratively to investigate online disinformation. But news organizations need to expand their coverage and acquire more resources to cut through the lies and speak truth to power.

That’s our goal with The GroundTruth Project, which is providing reporters to news organizations all over the world. In Brazil, we are matching independent newsrooms with talented emerging journalists who report on under-covered issues. We believe this is an extraordinary opportunity to foster independent local news as a buffer for democracy.

Believers in democracy and the free press will be holding their breath as voters in Brazil head to the polls Sunday. Regardless of the result, polarization and disinformation will remain a challenging reality, and the independent press will need all the support it can get.