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Racism, dissonance, and attacks on democracy (Demo)

Racism, police brutality, and protests in US 

Protests took hold in Minneapolis and later spread throughout the US, triggered by the killing of George Floyd on 25 May while in the custody of police. Protesters were responding not only to the murder, but to systemic discrimination and violence against black Americans, including a grave history of targeted police brutality. 

There has been disproportionate and inappropriate use of force against demonstrators and those covering acts across the US. IFEX member ARTICLE 19 pointed out that video recordings have documented unprovoked attacks by the police on protesters and journalists who identified themselves and sought to comply with police instructions. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counted at least 125 press freedom violations over just three days of U.S. protests.

Protesters and journalists have been shot at with pepper bullets, rubber bullets, tear gassed, and pepper sprayed.

The US Press Freedom Tracker has documented 38 cases of journalists attacked and 12 jailed so far in 2020. RSF’s secretary general Christophe Deloire has stressed the role of President Trump’s demonization of the media in the serious deterioration of press freedom in the US:

“It has long been obvious that this demonization would lead to physical violence. RSF has warned about the consequences of this blatant hostility towards the media, and we are now witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of violence against journalists in the US”.

A piece by ABC News looks back at Trump’s comments perceived as encouraging violence against protesters and the media. The list is long. He has questioned governors for being too weak in the handling of demonstrations and advised police officers to “please don’t be too nice” to suspects. He threatened to bring in the military to contain the demonstrations – a threat he followed through on.

On 30 May 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr issued a statement saying that the Department of Justice – including the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), Marshals, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), and all 93 U.S. Attorneys across the country would support local efforts and “take all action necessary to enforce federal law”. After that, the DEA was granted authority to “conduct covert surveillance” and collect intelligence on people participating in protests over the police killing of George Floyd, according to a two-page memorandum obtained by BuzzFeed News

These moves follow statements by Trump that the United States would designate Antifa as a terrorist organization – “[a] message from the country’s highest office that some American citizens are enemy combatants,” according to Axios editor Kyle Daly.

IFEX member the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)  has pointed out the dangers of the increased use of surveillance by state authorities in the US:

The build-up of even more sophisticated mass and targeted surveillance tools in the hands of American law enforcement, and the erosion of local control and protections against misuse, have all been normalized over the past two decades. Now the pandemic management technology being pushed by some tech companies and governments over the last few months is primed to be deployed as a massive new surveillance and control apparatus. With all of it, who will feel the brunt of the harm? Black lives”.

Brazil: A “little flu” and a “Hate Office”

Like Trump in the US, Brazil’s Bolsonaro always had a strong relationship with social media. Since the electoral presidential campaign in 2018, he has used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as the main means for communicating ideas and views to his sympathizers. But he has also been accused of making use of those platforms to spread disinformation and misinformation, especially targeted against his political opponents.

A case against his campaign coalition is currently under review by electoral authorities, and is expected to soon be on the agenda for ruling. The coalition is accused of irregularities under Brazilian electoral legislation, mainly relating to the massive forwarding of messages via WhatsApp to organize the spreading of disinformation and misinformation through internet platforms, with funding from private corporations – something that is illegal in Brazil. 

But even after the campaign, Bolsonaro continued to make use of disinformation to create public unrest and commotion, normally to deviate attention from more pressing issues affecting the country. This has been the case, for example, with COVID-19. He adopted a denialist approach from day one, downplaying the potential impact of the rapid spread of the virus and the health risks involved. Through official statements and ‘live’ broadcasts via social media, the president first referred to the disease as a ‘little flu’, saying that it would have no major effects on 90 percent of Brazilians, and that the media was creating hysteria around the issue. He continued to promote non-scientific cures for the disease and to violently oppose experts’ recommendations for social distancing. 

A report prepared by fact-checking project AosFatos found that, starting in early April, posts containing disinformation in Brazilian social media became more and more related to political disputes arising from the pandemic and its handling by the government, reaching 92% of posts. 

This tendency followed a growing rate of disapproval for Bolsonaro’s administration matched by growing demonstrations calling for an end to his government. 

Over the past months, a number of different initiatives have been underway in Brazil seeking to hold the president and his followers accountable for the spreading of so called “fake news”, especially after a Congress Inquiry Commission collected several testimonies relating to the existence of a core team, closely related to the president and operating from within the Presidential Palace, coordinating the strategic spread of disinformation, including defamatory messages against Bolsonaro’s opponents. The team has been nicknamed the ‘Hate Office’. 

A number of bills have been presented to Congress; one was nearly voted on during the first week of June, but was postponed after pressure from civil society groups who considered the text inappropriate and in need of much more extensive public debate. A joint statement expressing their concerns was signed by more than 30 organizations, including IFEX member Artigo 19 Brasil.

At the Supreme Court, another investigation is moving against Bolsonaro’s supporters for coordinated efforts to spread disinformation. The Court issued a number of search and seizure orders against well known Bolsonarian influencers and allied politicians. After that, an armed extreme right-wing pro-Bolsonaro group organized a protest in front of the Supreme Court, holding torches and masks. Bolsonaro and his congressmen sons have, during interviews, called for “a rupture” and said it was “enough”, when referring to the investigations at the Supreme Court. 

On June 3, IFEX member Abraji, together with the Brazilian Federation of Journalists and the Brazilian Press Association organized the joint act “Free Press, Strong Democracy”, as a reaction against the growing attacks against media workers and unconstitutional movements that have been mobilizing, with the support of Bolsonaro, against the Congress and the Supreme Court. Marcelo Träsel, Abraji’s president, affirmed that democracy hasn’t been in so much danger in Brazil since the end of the military dictatorship. 

A new report on freedom of expression in Venezuela 

IFEX Venezuelan member Espacio Publico released its 2019 annual report in May. The report calls attention to sustained and growing levels of social and political tension in Venezuela in the past years and 468 documented violations of freedom of expression between January and December 2019. This represents an increase of 21% compared with 2018.

Most of the 2019 cases are categorized as intimidation (32%), censorship (23%), and administrative restrictions (17%). Of 114 individuals detained by police and security forces for expressing their opinions through social media or media outlets, 64% were media workers. Most were released hours later, after being detained by various security and intelligence bodies. The report also highlights a growing tendency of filtering and blocking of online content.

In his prologue to the report, the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza states that “the situation of freedom of expression in Venezuela in 2019 cannot be explained without a reference to the antecedents of almost 20 years of deterioration and deliberate attack by the state against fundamental freedoms and democratic institutions. In the last decades, most relevant media outlets, in terms of professionalism and audience, have been closed down by the Venezuelan government in retaliation for their editorial and informative line; first, it was the TV channels, then the radio stations, and then the press”. 

More voices but less dialogue: Dissonance in Mexico 

ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America also released its 2019 annual report on Mexico: Dissonance: Voices in Dispute. According to the report, in 2019, more than at any other time, information remained the object of war, the object of dispute. This was reflected in an increase in attacks against journalists: 609 in one year, the highest number ever recorded.

The document moves on to analyse the broader informational context in Mexico, with the expansion of social media and the growing fragility of traditional media:

“While it is true that there are more voices, there is no dialogue: instead there is dissonance. Expressions repel, collide, and reject each other. Each other’s thoughts are incompatible and there is a constant tension between ideas, beliefs and emotions. There is no place for dissent, nor for criticism. The difference, in this six-year term, is that this does not only happen between the government and the citizenry, but within society itself”.

The report seeks to account for the effects of the polarization of thought and the need to take into account different perspectives. It also refers to the intensification and normalization of violence against the press, and the impact of the presidential discourse on delegitimizing and invalidating journalism through stigma, as well as the effects the president’s words have on violence and impunity.

The document summarizes the trends in Mexico for the past five years:

  • Access to public information is centralized in the Presidency of the Republic and has not improved; the trend of the previous six-year term continues.
  • Transparency is selective and discriminatory, the poor still do not come first.
  • Public appointments continue to reflect the wishes of the ruling party and do not guarantee autonomy and counterbalances.
  • The President’s morning press conferences are a form of propaganda to shape public debate, they are not an information or accountability mechanism.
  • Recognition of past atrocities is important, but does not provide full justice nor does it absolve the state of its duty to remember.
  • Disinformation is turning Mexico into a country intolerant of diversity, and is generating adverse effects against the most vulnerable populations, mainly the migrant population.
  • Women took to the streets because nobody listened or acted: now is the time for civic disobedience.

Surveillance and profiling of journalists and defenders in Colombia

An investigation has revealed a list of 130 individuals subjected to profiling by the Colombian military, including 30 journalists – among them correspondents for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and a National Geographic photographer, all US citizens.

I reviewed the recent events – and the broader ramifications in a recent article for IFEX: Unnecessary, disproportionate and widespread: The normalization of surveillance in Colombia and Latin America. 

For a more accessible internet

To mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day (21 May), IFEX member Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) launched the campaign PUEDA – For an Accessible Digital Environment. The campaign itself was designed with accessibility standards front and centre, and includes an interdisciplinary panel of experts that seek to promote a more inclusive digital context for all, based on empirical research. The campaign will include a series of activities aimed at raising awareness among the general public about the barriers that impact the exercise of digital rights by those living with disabilities.     

Need to make a video call? Check Derechos Digitales’ tips first

Derechos Digitales, IFEX’s member in Chile, just launched a guide to help you select the best tool to use. The organization reminds us that the choice of software depends on the specific needs of the user, that no solution is perfect, and that concessions may be in order. How to decide? Take a look at their recommendations, and remember that video calls are a technology still under development, and cuts and interruptions remain common.    

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