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Brazil calls Greenwald’s reporting a crime

New York Times

Jan. 21

The Brazilian government’s filing of criminal charges against the American journalist Glenn Greenwald is an increasingly familiar case of shooting the messenger and ignoring the message.

Mr. Greenwald is best known for his role in the release of national security documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, in 2013. In Brazil, where he moved 15 years ago to be with his now-husband, an opposition Brazilian congressman, Mr. Greenwald co-founded a Portuguese-language version of his investigative news site, The Intercept, which has become a thorn in the side of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Last June, The Intercept Brasil published a series of articles, based on leaked cellphone messages, that appeared to show illegal collusion with prosecutors by Sergio Moro, the judge who had become a superstar corruption-buster for jailing scores of businessmen and politicians, including the popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Jailing Mr. da Silva knocked him out of the race for president, clearing the way for the election of Mr. Bolsonaro — who then appointed Mr. Moro as his justice minister. Now, in addition to that implicit conflict of interest, the hacked messages suggested that Mr. Moro had violated Brazilian law, under which judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters, to help Mr. Bolsonaro. And this by a man previously lionized for his assault on entrenched corruption.

But the Bolsonaro camp quickly zeroed in on Mr. Greenwald rather than on Mr. Moro. Mr. Greenwald and his husband, David Miranda, came under a barrage of death threats and homophobic attacks. The Brazilian press reported that the federal police, which are under Mr. Moro, had asked the finance ministry to investigate Mr. Greenwald’s “financial activities,” and the police said they had started an investigation into the hacking of cellphones that led to the leaks.

The 95-page criminal complaint made public on Tuesday said Mr. Greenwald not only received and wrote about hacked messages, but actually played a “clear role in facilitating the commission of a crime.” For instance, the prosecutors said Mr. Greenwald communicated with the hackers while they were monitoring private chats on a messaging app.

Legal experts and opposition politicians said the evidence was thin. An investigation by the federal police, which identified and arrested the hacker, had already cleared Mr. Greenwald, and a Supreme Court justice had declared that publishing the messages was protected under the Brazilian Constitution.

Mr. Greenwald said he had “exercised extreme caution as a journalist never even to get close to any participation” in the hacking; he also noted that the complaint was brought by the same prosecutor who had earlier tried, and failed, to prosecute the head of the Brazilian bar association for criticizing Mr. Moro.

Sadly, assailing a free and critical press has become a cornerstone of the new breed of illiberal leaders in Brazil, as in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Accusations of wrongdoing are dismissed as “fake news” or politically motivated slander, and the power of the state is harnessed not against the accused officials but against the reporter.

In its 2018 report on press freedoms, the organization Reporters Without Borders warned that a “climate of hatred and animosity” whipped up by leaders toward journalists was posing a “threat to democracies.”

“More and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion,” the report said. When Mr. Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018, Reporters Without Borders called him “a serious threat to press freedom and democracy in Brazil.”

President Trump may not have made a dent in press freedoms in the United States — its traditions and institutions are too strong for that — but his incessant dismissal of stories he doesn’t like as “fake news” and his outrageous attacks on reporters as “enemies of the people” have provided succor and encouragement for the likes of Mr. Bolsonaro, who fuel loathing toward reporters both out of a personal disdain for the free press and as a cynical means of firing up the anger of their followers.

Mr. Greenwald’s articles did what a free press is supposed to do: They revealed a painful truth about those in power. Puncturing the heroic image of Mr. Moro was obviously a shock for Brazilians, and damaging to Mr. Bolsonaro, but demanding that defenders of the law be scrupulous in their adherence to it is essential for democracy. Attacking the bearers of that message is a serious disservice and a dangerous threat to the rule of law.

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