FILE - A man passes graffiti depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and a coronavirus representation engaged in a tug-of-war with health workers, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 10, 2020. The text in red reads: "Which side are you on?"
FILE - A man passes graffiti depicting a likeness of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and a coronavirus character engaged in a tug-of-war with health workers, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 10, 2020. The text in red reads: "Which side are you on?"

WASHINGTON - Brazil’s decision to seek charges against political cartoonists has been met with derision by experts who say authorities should focus on addressing the issues the artists satirized, including poor policing and a weak pandemic response, instead of trying to silence the media.

The government of President Jair Bolsonaro is investigating five cartoonists and one blogger over satirical cartoons that his government alleges violate national security.

On June 15, Brazilian Minister of Justice André Mendonça issued a series of tweets calling on federal police and prosecutors to investigate Renato Aroeira for a June 14 illustration that showed Bolsonaro using a paintbrush to transform the Red Cross medical symbol into a swastika.

Bolsonaro, who had previously tested positive for the coronavirus, has been widely criticized for sidelining medical experts in Brazil’s handling of the pandemic, which has become the worst in the world outside of the United States.

Mendonça also called for an investigation into Ricardo Noblat, a prominent journalist who runs a blog for the Brazilian weekly Veja, for reposting Aroeira's cartoon on his Twitter feed.  
 
The Justice Ministry says the cartoon violates Article 26 of the National Security Law, which criminalizes slander and defamation of heads of state and allows up to four years in prison.
 
The opposition party, Sustainability Network, requested that the court suspend the investigation.
 
The request was criticized by at least one lawmaker, who argued on Twitter that by associating the president with Nazis, the cartoon had pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression.
 
In a separate case, Folha de São Paulo reported on June 13 that four of its contributing cartoonists – Alberto Benett, Laerte Coutinho, João Montanaro and Claudio Mor – were named in a criminal complaint filed by Defenda PM, a military police association.

Defenda PM said the cartoons, published in December 2019, “embarrassed” their members by depicting an incident of police activity that triggered a stampede resulting in civilian deaths.
 
The Ministry of Justice did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.
 
The Brazil embassy in Washington referred VOA to a June 15 tweet by Bolsonaro's special secretary for social media, which says "false accusation of crime is a crime."
 
"Noblat and the cartoonist are accusing the president of the very serious crime of Nazism," a translation of the tweet read. "Unless they prove their accusation, which is impossible, they incur false imputation of crime and will answer for that crime."

FILE - Demonstrators unfurl a banner with a cartoon image of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro with a paintbrush, insinuating he transformed a red cross into a swastika, during an anti-Bolsonaro protest, in Brasilia, Brazil, June 21, 2020.

International rights groups condemned the legal action.

"A hallmark of strong, secure, legitimate government is its ability to weather the mere lampoons of an impudent cartoonist," Terry Anderson, executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), told VOA. "Evidently Brazil has no such governance.”

Deaths by stampede

Defenda PM said the December 2019 Folha de São Paulo cartoons humiliated their members.

The cartoons were published in response to a Dec. 1 police chase in Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo's second-largest slum, in which officers opened fire near a street party of about 5,000 people, triggering a stampede that killed nine.

A January report by Rio de Janeiro’s Public Security Institute – a state-government subsidized civic research and community outreach organization – says police were responsible for 43% of all violent deaths in that state in 2019.

Reuters last month reported that Brazil omitted complaints of police violence from an annual human rights report, sparking allegations of a cover-up of excessive force by law enforcement.

"The criminal complaint filed by Defenda PM, a military police association, against four cartoonists and Folha de São Paulo newspaper, is also an example of the attempt to use the criminal system to intimidate and harass people who express opinions that should be protected in a democracy," said César Muñoz, Americas senior researcher for U.S.-headquartered Human Rights Watch.

"Defenda PM said that their cartoons 'embarrass' military police officers," he added. "What should embarrass them is not the cartoons, but the almost daily release of videos and other evidence showing military police using violence against unarmed people and breaking the law.”

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI) echoed that sentiment, expressing concern that Brazil's top justice officials would invoke national security laws to "defend the President of the Republic from a critical cartoon on his government.”

"While every citizen has the legal right to seek compensation when he feels his honor has been injured, using the power of the state and a law created during a dark period in the country’s history is disproportionate,” said ABRAJI board member Maria Esperidião, alluding to the National Security Law's 1969 inception under a Brazilian junta.

"The strategy suggests that the real objective was to intimidate the press and restrict freedom of expression," she said. "Therefore, it gives the impression that the state is using its power against civil society."

Concerns about crackdown

Anderson, of the cartoonists network, said the spate of criminal cases – and timing amid the pandemic – represents the realization of long-held concern for members of his organization.

Thumbnail image for COVID-19: The Hit on Press Freedom
COVID-19: The Hit on Press Freedom
Amid emergency measures and lockdowns globally, journalists are arrested, attacked or blocked from reporting on COVID-19.

"In June we released a statement articulating our fears about irreparable damage to the profession of cartooning during and after the global pandemic, the primary reason being the convenient pretext it provides to authoritarians, populists and nationalists to further lean in to their most repressive impulses," he added.

"Thus far that would seem to be borne out by what is occurring in Brazil, where a beleaguered leader, who all objective observers agree has presided over a disastrous response to COVID-19, now leads an administration that has developed a marked sensitivity to cartoons.”

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.