Fake News Probe Fuels Crisis Between Bolsonaro and Top Court

(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s federal police targeted allies of President Jair Bolsonaro as part of an investigation mandated by the Supreme Court into the spread of fake news, potentially fueling an institutional crisis between the three branches of government.

Search and seizure orders were carried out in six states Wednesday under a probe led by Justice Alexandre de Moraes. In his decision, Moraes wrote that the targeted people use social media to spread fake news and personal attacks, and in turn destabilize democracy in the country.

“Evidence indicates a criminal association dedicated to the dissemination of false news, offensive attacks on several people, the authorities and the institutions, among them the Supreme Court, with flagrant hateful content,” he wrote in his legal dispatch distributed by the Supreme Court’s press office. He wrote that the result was a “subversion of order.”

Fake News Probe Fuels Crisis Between Bolsonaro and Top Court

Businessman Luciano Hang, owner of the Havan department store chain, former federal lawmaker Roberto Jefferson, and pro-government bloggers were among the 17 people targeted by search and seizure orders. The court also ordered that six federal lawmakers and two members of the Sao Paulo state legislature be questioned by police. They’re all seen as Bolsonaro’s allies or supporters.

Bolsonaro and the Supreme Court have been at odds on a number of issues, particularly after the court supported restrictive measures imposed by governors to slow the spread of the coronavirus, against the president’s push to reopen the economy. Wednesday’s operation greatly increases the political temperature in Brasilia, weakening cooperation among the executive, the judiciary and Congress as the pandemic peaks.

By Wednesday evening Brazil’s Health Ministry reported 411,821 total confirmed Covid-19 cases and 25,598 deaths.

The president was unusually quiet in the hours after the operation and had not commented on the events by Wednesday evening, but his son and former campaign manager Carlos Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter, “We are the people most attacked daily on social media.”

The market did not markedly react to the news, but Lucas de Aragao, political analyst at Arko Advice, said, “For investors, this kind of never-ending institutional risk makes every investment more expensive.”

Free Speech

The public prosecutor, Augusto Aras, asked the court to suspend the operation. “The Public Prosecutor’s Office was surprised by the news of search and seizures and other measures without the agency’s participation, supervision or prior consent,” Aras said in a statement distributed by his press office.

Justice Minister Andre Luiz Mendonça said in a statement that Brazilians have the “inalienable right to criticize their representatives and institutions,” and that any attempt to limit that right is “an attack on democracy,” but that the police’s actions come from a judicial order that, if violated, would also undermine democracy.

Daniel Silveira, a lower house lawmaker who was targeted by the operation, said in an interview, “If Supreme Court justices continue to make unconstitutional decisions and continue seeing themselves as untouchable demi-gods, we may head to a constitutional crisis with potentially unpredictable and dangerous consequences.”

Havan’s Hang, who had his computer and mobile phone seized by investigators at his home in the state of Santa Catarina, said he never fabricated fake news.

“We want to speak the truth. Sometimes there’s a fact and many versions. I always present my version of that fact,” he said in a live broadcast on social media this morning. “It’s important that we are free to express ourselves; I never went against the Supreme Court and that will be proved through my computer and phone.”

Jefferson, the former lawmaker who recently became a staunch supporter of Bolsonaro, compared the Supreme Court to a Nazi court. “Alexandre de Moraes, from the Reich Court, is trying to gag me with a rag from his robe. God protect the Brazilian people from dictators,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Lawmakers targeted by the police published similar messages against the top court. Lower house representative Carla Zambelli, a close ally of Bolsonaro, called on the Senate to impeach the justice “responsible for this absurdity.”

Prominent Operations

Fake News Probe Fuels Crisis Between Bolsonaro and Top Court

It’s the second consecutive day that Brazilians wake up to a high-profile police operation. On Tuesday, investigators searched the official residence of Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel to probe misuse of funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic -- an allegation the governor denies. Witzel, who was elected on a law-and-order platform very similar to Bolsonaro’s, has now become one of the president’s most vocal opponents.

Bolsonaro, who has been clashing with state governors over the response to the coronavirus pandemic, is also being probed for an alleged attempt to influence criminal investigations. The president, who denies any wrongdoing, has replaced the national chief of the federal police as well as the head of the police in his home state of Rio. The changes to the leadership of the institution akin to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations followed the resignation of former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who accused the president of trying to meddle in the institution.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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