There are many politically incorrect things Narendra Modi has done in office and gotten away with. But none has been more questionable than inviting Brazil’s loathsome president Jair Bolsonaro as chief guest at the Republic Day in January 2020.
Bolsonaro, a retired military officer, had been in office for less than a year, but he had by then already acquired stellar credentials: a homophobic bigot with a history of misogyny, who was pro-business, anti-minorities, anti-migrants, anti-environment.
Subhas Chandra Bose‘s grandnephew, Prof Sugata Bose who teaches at Harvard, said Bolsonaro was a patron of death squads: “India should not have chosen him unless its objective was to show that India is part of the global rise of right-wing authoritarianism.”
Mahatma Gandhi‘s granddaughter Supriya Gandhi, who teaches at Yale, said: “Bolsonaro has much in common with the current leadership in India, not least a complete disregard for democratic norms and the urgency of the environment crisis.”
But since Gandhi and Bose, Harvard and Yale, count for little, Bolsonaro came, saw, and went right back into the eye of Coronavirus storm.
Just like Donald Trump did a month later in February.
Today, under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has seen more deaths due to COVID than China.
The medical journal Lancet calls Bolsonaro “perhaps the biggest threat” to Brazil’s Coronavirus response. But for the far-right leader, who came to power on the back of fake news on social media, the real problem is the media, mainstream media.
COVID, he says, is a “media trick” and the people will soon realise they were deceived by the media.
“Don’t believe in the fake news media,” he tells his faithful.
“You are an endangered species,” he tells journalists.
According to one count, Bolsonaro personally lashed out at the press 116 times last year.
In Brazil, journalists are insulted, denigrated and humiliated by Bolsonaro and his sons every day by paid trolls employed by the “hate office“, their version of the “IT Cell”.
Reporters covering Coronavirus have been confronted on the streets and stopped from doing their job by his supporters.
Bolsonaro doesn’t answer questions from media outlets that question him. He takes away government advertising from newspapers and TV channels that oppose him.
Little wonder, Brazil is 107th on the World Press Freedom Index. It is ninth on the Global Impunity Index compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
So how did such an odious man end up as the chief guest on India’s Republic Day?
And what does his contempt for the media mean for Brazil and for democracies in the civilised world?
In this episode of J-POD, Shobhan Saxena, joins us from Sao Paulo.
Shobhan Saxena is the first Indian journalist to report from South America.
He is now a contributor for The Hindu, and his bylines have appeared in The Times of India and The Economic Times among other publications.
Shobhan, who has been based in Brazil since 2012, is also a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo.
2.00: “Brazil is not a country of big national newspapers. Most papers are city-based. TV is the main source of news. Brazil is the social media capital of the world. TV Globo has made content free in Coronavirus season.
4.20: “Firing journalists or cutting salaries is not easy in Brazil. Labour laws have been made stronger in the last 15 years. Companies have to go the labour board and the courts and seek permission.
6.00: “70% of TV news is concentrated among four stations in Brazil. There are no limits on cross-media ownership. Globo is not anti-establishment or pro-establishment, it is the establishment, like The Times of India.
8.30: “Brazil has seen a rise of the evangelical church and they have got into the media business. They have their own agenda.
13.20: “Jair Bolsanaro is a bad version of Donald Trump. Trump said his Twitter account is his own newspaper. That summaries his politics, and his attitude and approach to media.
“Creation of social media has done so much damage to mainstream media. Politicians do not need MSM to reach out to the base. Also, they have decided to just talk to their base. This is a threat to democracy.
“Social media is not organic any more. You can put a fake story and promote it with a few dollars. It gets more traction than a real story. It has completely ruptured the media narrative. People can’t distinguish real from fake.
“Brazil is closer to US in how the society is organised. It is much easier to use social media to create differences and divergences.
23.50: “Bolsonaro backs the channels backed by the evangelicals. He only gives interviews to them.
27.25: “Trump and Bolsanaro have both turned COVID into something about themselves. It’s a big distortion. Bolsanaro has not once said anything about people dying. He is trying to weaponise people who suffering or losing their jobs. The whole idea is to keep out serious questions.
34.48: “By constantly attacking journalists or mocking them, he wants to make the people distrust mainstream media. 55% of those who follow him are bots. They make any topic or hashtag trend. Spreading hate, mistrust and confusion is a new form of censorship.
38.12: “Social media is being used for fake news on COVID. The intention is to make people question science. Because internet connectivity and social media is so high in Brazil, it is having an impact on people. Confused messages have led to people defy social distancing norms.
42.30: “Like Donald Trump does in his White House briefings, instead of answering questions, Bolsonaro asks reporters to shut up. Or he calls them fake news. The attack on mainstream media is to make people question them and make them go to channels and magazines and social media backed by the evangelical church.
45.15: “The common thread is Steve Bannon. It is all coming from Steve Bannon’s playbook which challenges the existing narrative and offers extreme solutions. Like Trump stopped the New York Times from coming to White House, Bolsanaro stopped with Folha de Sao Paolo. They cut advertising to TV Globo. Using state power to suppress media or make them dance to your tunes.
“The Trump model needs an adversary every day. It is not politics that sees the other side as a rival but as your enemy. Steve Bannon has been very active in Brazil. He is a personal friend of one of Bolsanaro’s sons.
48.35: “Bolsanaro’s attempts to sneak in legislation to curb freedoms have failed. Every legislation has to go through Congress. The Supreme Court has been very pro-active. He issued many decrees but they were shot down. As a result, his supporters want these institutions closed. The institutions are in conflict with each other. It’s the president versus everyone else.
53.03: “There have been toxic tweets from the top of the government. When Bolsanaro’s son called it #Chinese virus the Chinese ambassador said it seemed like he had caught a mental virus in Miami.
55.42: “Bolsanaro’s popularity has fallen from 33% to 27%. A growing number of people think he is doing a bad job of dealing with Coronavirus. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay have done much better than Brazil. He has become much weaker than when the pandemic started.”