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Brazilian Conservatives Really Hate Glenn Greenwald

The criminal complaint against the American journalist needs to be understood in the context of a broader political struggle.

Glenn Greenwald (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

Last June, American journalist Glenn Greenwald presided over what appeared to be the most incendiary scoop in Brazil’s recent history, detailing a pattern of mendacity and manipulation in Operation Car Wash, the long-running corruption investigation that led to the arrest of former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On Tuesday, the other shoe dropped: Greenwald was formally charged, by federal prosecutors under the current right-wing Brazilian government, with cybercrimes. The criminal complaint alleges that Greenwald and six others “directly assisted, encouraged and guided” the hackers who acquired thousands of text messages and emails belonging to members of Operation Car Wash. According to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, a prosecutor in the case said Greenwald could be heard on a computer seized by the Federal Police—Greenwald himself was not under investigation, the paper reports—instructing the hackers to delete messages to avoid incriminating themselves. To the prosecutor, this makes Greenwald a co-conspirator, “advising criminals” under the guise of “protecting a journalistic source.” The Brazilian Constitution, ratified in 1988, guarantees special protections for journalists and their sources. At issue is whether Greenwald crossed the line into illicit behavior himself.  

Then there’s the other issue: whether Brazil will ever confront the actual implications of Greenwald’s reporting. Polarization is nothing new in Brazilian politics. What is notable in this specific case, however, is the outright hostility to the inconvenient fact that Operation Car Wash was not as incorruptible as it seemed. The wholesale rejection of that idea is as widespread as it is unthinking, given that Greenwald and his team at The Intercept have solid, incontrovertible evidence for their damning assessments. Unfortunately, that attitude will probably persist regardless of the picture that emerges in the coming months of Greenwald’s reporting process.

Since 2016, The Intercept, which Greenwald co-founded with journalist Jeremy Scahill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, has operated a Brazilian edition that publishes the kind of hard-hitting stories that the conservative mainstream press in that country tends to avoid. While Greenwald’s frequent appearances on Fox News and his outspoken skepticism of Russiagate theories irk many American liberals, in Brazil, where he lives with his husband and young sons, he is much more clearly associated with the left. His husband, David Miranda, is a member of Congress for the Socialism and Liberty Party.

The bombshell series of articles published by The Intercept last year placed Greenwald at odds with the right-wing forces that have gripped the nation in recent years. Working with “a massive archive of previously undisclosed materials—including private chats, audio recordings, videos, photos, court proceedings, and other documentation—provided to us by an anonymous source,” Greenwald and his partners exposed the profound partisanship of Operation Car Wash’s war on corruption, which either directly or indirectly felled numerous powerful leftists in Lula’s and his successor Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. The fallout from The Intercept’s exposé—referred to as Vaza Jato, a play on Operation Car Wash’s Portuguese name, Lava Jato—has led to threats on Greenwald’s life and an on-air physical altercation with a conservative commentator during a popular radio program.

While the reporting was as provocative as it was illuminating, the political impact of Vaza Jato has been surprisingly muted. When the first stories were published, I was struck by their potentially explosive implications. Most notably, by publishing incriminating text messages and other communications, Vaza Jato shattered the pristine image of Judge Sérgio Moro, who garnered international acclaim between 2015 and 2018 for his work overseeing high-profile corruption trials like that of former president Lula. As The Washington Post reported in December 2015, “[W]hen Brazilians flooded the streets to protest corruption and call for [then President] Rousseff’s impeachment on four occasions this year, many wore Moro masks, waved banners with his name or carried inflatable Moro dolls.” We now know, however, on account of The Intercept’s reporting, that Moro was secretly advising the prosecution in Lula’s case, a grievous ethical breach.

Lula remains a popular, if divisive, figure who was leading the polls for the 2018 presidential race at the time of his imprisonment. Further underscoring Moro’s duplicity is the fact that, after sending Lula to jail, he went on to join the administration of far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro, arguably the biggest individual beneficiary of Lula’s disqualification from the race. Bolsonaro, a notorious homophobe and racist, has responded to Vaza Jato by attacking Greenwald in deeply personal terms, calling him a “scoundrel” who married a Brazilian and adopted Brazilian children only to avoid being deported and declaring that he might yet face jail time in Brazil.

Several months later, Moro, now Minister of Justice, remains largely unscathed by the scandalous Vaza Jato revelations. In fact, a poll earlier this year found him to be the most trusted public figure in Brazilian politics, with 33 percent expressing a high degree of trust in him versus 30 percent for Lula, who came in second. That’s despite the fact that neither Moro nor anyone else implicated in The Intercept’s reporting has contested its substance. If Moro is no longer the untarnished paragon of civic virtue, he is seen by many supporters instead as the wily strategist working every angle—above board or subterranean, as needed—to block a Workers’ Party comeback. Unacknowledged by his admirers are the lengths to which Moro has gone to shield his right-wing allies from legal scrutiny. It was perhaps naïve to think Moro’s own words might condemn him, particularly since millions of Brazilians were driven by 13 years of uninterrupted Workers’ Party governance to see key institutions and conventions of democracy as obstacles to be worked around rather than engaged. Indeed, what is most alarming about the juridical threats Greenwald now faces is not so much that they come from a government intent on silencing him—such thuggery was to be expected from a Bolsonaro presidency—but that so many in Brazil are celebrating thinly veiled government censorship and flocking to defend the integrity of a man like Moro, whose lack of scruples has been amply documented. On Tuesday, Claudio Dantas, a journalist with the popular right-wing website O Antagonista, published a video calling Greenwald a self-serving hypocrite and saying he laughed when Greenwald asserted his absolute right to protect his source. In the same video, Dantas went on to praise Bolsonaro’s neoliberal economic agenda and to question the corruption scandals of bygone Workers’ Party administrations. Anti-Greenwald schadenfreude has become a prominent feature of right-wing Brazilian politics.    

The Intercept, in its response to the charge against Greenwald on Tuesday, noted that “the Bolsonaro government has repeatedly made it clear that it does not believe in basic press freedoms. Today’s announcement that a criminal complaint has been filed against Intercept co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald is the latest example of journalists facing serious threats in Brazil.” In a personal statement, Greenwald placed the charges against him within the broader context of the democratic disarray under Bolsonaro:

This accusation—brought by the same prosecutor who just tried and failed to criminally prosecute the head of the Brazilian Bar Association for criticizing Minister Moro—is an obvious attempt to attack a free press in retaliation for the revelations we reported about Minister Moro and the Bolsonaro government. It is also an attack on the Brazilian Supreme Court, which ruled in July that I am entitled to have my press freedom protected in response to other retaliatory attacks from Minister Moro, and even an attack on the findings of the Federal Police, which concluded explicitly after a comprehensive investigation that I committed no crimes and solely acted as a journalist.

The charges against Greenwald also come in the context of increasing tensions between the Brazilian government and critics abroad. Prominent voices in the United States defended Greenwald on Tuesday. “The free press is never more important than when it exposes wrongdoing by the powerful,” Bernie Sanders, who has labeled Bolsonaro part of “a new authoritarian axis,” tweeted: “That is why President Bolsonaro is threatening Glenn Greenwald for the ‘crime’ of doing journalism. I call on Brazil to end its authoritarian attack on press freedom and the rule of law.” The New York Times editorial board also strongly criticized the retaliatory thrust of the move against Greenwald. Yet critics may be shouting into the wind: On Tuesday morning, it was reported that Bolsonaro’s approval ratings rose almost seven percentage points, from 41 to 47.8 percent, in the last five months, suggesting he has not paid a particularly high price for the controversies his administration has courted—from presiding over a huge increase in deliberate forest fires in the Amazon to this latest tangle with Greenwald. International outrage can probably still produce results in certain circumstances. But one can’t shake the feeling that it is a strategy with diminishing returns.