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Brazil: Has a free Internet really appeared on the electoral scene?

After much deliberation, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies [pt] and National Senate [pt] have this month approved a bill that reforms the laws number 9.096/95 (Electoral Law, pt) and 9.504/1997 (Standards for Elections, pt), imposing new rules for the 2010 election campaign, the largest in the country, in which the president, state governors as well as state and federal members of parliament will be chosen.

With the reform, the restrictions that used to ban all campaign advertising on the Internet have changed – and a few perplexing caveats, especially when it comes to blogging, have been put in place: now, personal websites and media outlets shall be treated equally, follow the same rules of conduct and be liable to the same punishments, already applied to the mainstream media. For it to come into force by next year's presidential and state elections, President Lula must sign the bill into law by October 2, exactly one year before the polls.

Political parties will campaign for their candidates from July 5 through October 3, 2010, the election date. The law will be enforced during this period, regulating the political propaganda as well as voters’ participation on the Internet. The National Chamber of Deputies, who call themselves “the People's House”, released the news through their official news website [pt], stating in bold headlines that the “Chamber allows the Internet in election campaigns,” as if the use of the web was a gift given to citizens by members of parliament. So did the Senate.

The joint report [pt] by two of the Chamber's Commissions (Justice and Citizenship and Science, Technology and Innovation) upheld the point of view of the bill's author, Deputy Henrique Eduardo Alves [pt], and saw no objection to making independent Internet users’ expression equal with political propaganda on radio, TV and print media.

Unfortunately, the national parliament has missed an excellent opportunity to display support for Brazilian society, choosing instead to respond to political interests only to the detriment of the broader freedom of expression. Regarding this point, Raphael Tsavkko on the Trezentos blog [pt] criticizes the lack of sense of the Brazilian Parliament in bringing the electoral reform close to the laws imposed on people by the military dictatorship 70 years ago. He highlights [pt] the contradiction that while bloggers can not speak their minds anonymously, campaign donors have kept the right not to reveal their identities:

Eles brigam, nós, o povo, perdemos.

A tentativa de colar a idéia desta censura à uma suposta moralização é inútil, soa ofensiva quando os políticos corruptos e com ficha suja continuarão a concorrer em total liberdade. Existe liberdade para a bandalha, para o roubo, mas não para a livre expressão! Nós, palhaços, ops, eleitores, para piorar, sequer podemos sabem quem financia nossos candidatos! A piada da doação oculta permanece. OS parlamentares tem medo de dizer a verdade, de mostrar de onde vem o dinheiro de suas campanhas e pra quem irão, efetivamente legislar. Para nós é que não é, disto já sabemos!

They fight, we, the people, lose.
Trying to give the idea of a supposed moralization to this censorship is useless, it sounds offensive when corrupt politicians with a dirty past continue to compete in total freedom. There is freedom for fuckup, for theft, but not for free speech! To make it worse, we, the clowns, I mean, voters, don't even know who are funding our candidates! The joke of secret donations remains. Lawmakers are afraid to tell the truth, to reveal where the money for their campaigns comes from and who they will effectively legislate for. Surely it is not for us, as we know!

The same blog suggests that readers send mass e-mails to the members of parliament responsible for the reform, stating dissatisfaction with this rights restricting law, and lists the relevant e-mail addresses.

On the other hand, the news pieces about the project's approval last week proved that society no longer remembers the censorship imposed by Law 9504/1997, a legal text that had already put the Internet and mainstream media in the same bag. To refresh your memory, this symbol of negative individual rights of the Brazilian people prohibits “disseminating opinion for or against a candidate, party, coalition, or their representative organizations” online (Article 45, item III), under penalty of a fine of up to R$ 100,000.00 (approximately US$ 50,000).

The current project does not differentiate personal blogs and web pages from those belonging to mainstream media, and includes other restrictions, such as those regarding debate and interviews with candidates. Should a netcitizen “commit this crime”, they may suffer criminal penalties and be subject to fines ranging between R$5,000.00 and R$30,000.00 (approximately US$ 2,500 to 15,000). According to the Members of Parliaments’ interpretation, anyone who talks about a candidate is dangerous and should be tightly controlled. Moreover, if a blogger criticizes a candidate, they must give the right of reply according to fairness rules, which has made many Internet users wonder, like Rogério Martins, from the Marginal Conservador [pt] blog:

A Câmara manteve a liberdade de blogs, redes sociais, sites e programas de mensagens instantâneas (até o msn neguinho quer vigiar!), mas com ressalvas. Ressalvas um tanto inusitadas: o direito democrático de cada blogueiro em expressar sua opinião por um ou outro candidato está liberado, mas caberá o direito de resposta e a proibição do anonimato em artigos e reportagens. […] Direito de resposta para blogs?!?! Ora, os blogs estão entre os meios mais democráticos da internet, pois o “direito de resposta” já é algo inerente a eles, na ideia dos comentários que qualquer leitor pode fazer após a leitura das postagens. É isso que torna a internet 2.0 única. Aqui, o leitor também tem vez: cada post tem espaço para comentários, elogios, críticas, “direitos de resposta” etc. E há também a flexibilidade: podemos sempre “corrigir” textos já escritos, acrecentando algo ou cortando eventuais tropeços.

The Chamber has maintained the freedom of blogging, social networking, websites and instant messaging (even msn the folks wanted to watch!), but with reservations. These are somewhat unusual: the democratic right of every blogger to express their views on either candidate is guaranteed, but they will need to apply the right of reply, and the prohibition of anonymity in articles and reports. […] Right of reply in blogs, oi?!?! Blogs are among the most democratic vehicles of the Internet, because the “right of reply” is already inherent to them, in the comments box that any reader can use after reading the posts. That is what makes Web 2.0 unique. The reader has a voice here: each post has space for comments, compliments, criticisms, “right of reply” etc. Then there is the flexibility: we can always “correct” texts written, adding something or cutting off any eventual mistake.

The MP's fear of losing control over the free expression of all citizens is shown in item I of Article 57-D of the bill, which prohibits news pieces dealing with electoral research regarding the campaign and candidates, including:

Art. 57-D – It is forbidden for content providers and multimedia services, as well as media companies on the Internet, in their content available on the web pages:

I – To transmit, albeit in the form of journalistic interviews, images, text or sound about electoral research conducted, or any other kind of popular consultation about the elections where it is possible to identify the [candidate] interviewed or where there is data manipulation.

In other words, besides forbidding comments about any candidate, no online vehicle, including blogs, will be able to mention electoral research results, even if in a critical or journalistic instance. An online article that a netcitizen eventually writes can not bear the names of candidates, parties, coalitions, images, videos or other means to identify them. According to Arturios Maximus, from the Visão Panorâmica [pt] blog, the behavior of the members of parliament reveals a fear of having their personal lives exposed [pt] by the work of individual netcitizens:

A fantasia de honradez de hombridade e de progressividade longamente cultivada diante das lentes da televisão e dos gravadores de jornalistas subservientes e tolhidos por empresas dependentes de publicidade e de financiamentos públicos; de repente se torna a carantonha feia e asquerosa, corroída pela corrupção e por toda sorte de vícios e ilicitudes cometidos ao longo de décadas de dissimulação estudada, tolerada e incentivada. Do dia para a noite o “nobre senador” ou o “nobre deputado” vê sua verdadeira imagem de escroque oportunista exposta aos quatro ventos para quem quiser ver; bem ali, ao alcance de um simples clique do mouse.

There is a fantasy of nobility righteousness and of progressiveness cultivated for such a long time through the television cameras and voice recorders of subservient journalists, paralyzed by media companies dependent on advertising and public funding; suddenly, their large faces become disgusting and ugly, corroded by corruption and all sorts of vices and illegal acts committed over decades of studied, tolerated and encouraged slyness. Overnight, the “noble senator” or the “noble deputy” sees his true opportunistic swindler image exposed to the four winds for all to see, right there, within reach of a simple mouse click.

Member of Parliament Flávio Dino, who co-authored the controversial bill, gives a lesson in empty rhetoric, acknowledging that the Internet, radio and TV are all the same but at the same time denying that he had acknowledged so in an interview for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo [pt]:

A internet não é igual a rádio e televisão, mas é também rádio, é também televisão. É também equivalente a jornal e a revista. Então, o regime jurídico tem que ser também misto, tem que ser também híbrido. A equiparação absoluta que nós fizemos foi apenas em relação aos debates. Ou seja, se é feito um debate em um portal comercial e em uma rede comercial de TV há que se observar as mesmas regras que são democráticas. São as regras de garantir voz para todos”.

The Internet is not like radio and television, but it is also like radio, like television. It is also equivalent to newspapers and magazines. Then, the legal system must also be mixed, it must be hybrid too. The absolute comparison we made was only for debates. That is, if a debate is hosted by a commercial portal and by a TV network, they must observe the same democratic rules. These are rules to ensure a voice for everyone”.

Marcelo Träsel, in his homonyms blog [pt], analyses the problems of comparing media traditionally linked to the market with Internet individuals, noting that the private nature of the Internet does not allow it to be treated in the same way as mainstream television channels, radio and press:

O maior problema é a comparação da Internet com rádio e televisão, completamente falaciosa. As regras para propaganda e jornalismo em rádio e televisão são mais restritivas por se tratarem de concessões públicas. A Internet não exige uma concessão para que qualquer pessoa ou instituição possa se manifestar, portanto não pode seguir as mesmas regras de rádio e televisão. Nas redes de computadores, os candidatos podem ocupar espaços livremente, sem depender da chancela de um jornalista ou empresário de comunicação. Assim, as possibilidades de manipulação por parte do poder econômico são muito menores — embora existam.

The biggest problem is that the comparison of the Internet to radio and television is completely misleading. The rules for advertising and journalism on radio and television are more restrictive because they are public concessions. The Internet does not require a grant to any person or institution for it to manifest itself, so we can not apply the same rules applied to radio and television. In computer networks, the candidates can occupy spaces freely, without depending on the support of a journalist or media manager. Thus, the scope for manipulation by the economic power is much lower – although it is still there.

The disservice done by this piece of legislature to the press and Web 2.0 reaches unimaginable proportions for a 21st century that is free from dictatorial moorings. The lone netcitizen has been legally obliged to behave as a media entrepreneur, unable to analyse the posture of candidates and the conduct of the elections in his country, and has had his constitutionally guaranteed right of expression restricted. Another shovel full of earth on the fragile democratic state.

Translated by Paula Góes


  • I am honored for having been cited in this fantastic article. The freedom and the democracy cannot be limited. Excesses must be punished. But, to try to hinder that the truth them facts appears is a shame and one confronts for the democracy.

  • […] sobre a nova lei eleitoral e a tentativa de limitá-la que nossos políticos fizeram (Leia aqui em inglês ou aqui em […]

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