Free Press

Brazilian Federal Prosecutors Target Journalist Glenn Greenwald for Exposing Corruption

Authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro attacks the press using the same justification the U.S. used to charge Julian Assange.


Brazil's authoritarian leadership is charging journalist Glenn Greenwald with being part of a "criminal organization" after he helped expose possible government corruption through leaked private messages.

Greenwald, a co-founder of media site The Intercept, is best known for helping Edward Snowden reveal to the public the truth about America's domestic surveillance program (he was awarded a Pulitzer for his work). He lives in Brazil, where he's been reporting critically on behavior by the country's president, far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, and his administration.

Greenwald, via The Intercept, had published articles last year that suggested some serious problems with a massive political corruption and bribery investigation known as Operation Car Wash. The investigation has led to arrests and charges against many Brazilian politicians, including Bolsonaro's predecessor, Michel Temer, and his predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

But according to private messages leaked to Greenwald, a judge involved in the investigation was possibly directing and colluding with prosecutors to target specific people and keep da Silva from running for a third term against Bolsonaro. In short, The Intercept's reporting suggests that the political anti-corruption investigation is itself politically corrupt.

The Intercept's reporting on Brazil has certainly been a thorn in Bolsonaro's side and he has threatened retaliation against Greenwald. Now prosecutors in his government are claiming that Greenwald isn't just a recipient of hacked and leaked messages, but an active participant engaged in hacking. This is remarkably similar to the allegations being used by the United States to attempt to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange.

Greenwald responded in a statement noting that police have already investigated these claims and cleared him of any direct involvement:

Less than two months ago, the Federal Police, examining all the same evidence cited by the Public Ministry, stated explicitly that not only have I never committed any crime but that I exercised extreme caution as a journalist never even to get close to any participation. Even the Federal Police under Minister Moro's command said what is clear to any rational person: I did nothing more than do my job as a journalist—ethically and within the law.

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 on 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.

Brazil has constitutional protections for press freedoms, but human rights advocacy group Freedom House notes that these protections are not always enforced. The country has criminal libel and defamation laws, and journalists do sometimes get threatened with prison sentences by judges for publishing information critical of government behavior.

It's unconscionable for any government to launch criminal attacks against journalists who are trying to expose their corruption and one would think that any person who values freedom would oppose what's happening. But Greenwald, not unlike Assange, has been a critic of America's political establishment and foreign policy. He has also been a relentless critic of Hillary Clinton, and while he's no fan of President Donald Trump (whose attitude toward the press is similar to Bolsonaro's), he also has been openly critical of how the press has covered the investigation of Trump and believes the media has exaggerated the evidence against Trump, falls too easily for conspiracy theories, and overstates the role of Russia in the manipulation of the 2016 presidential election.

So, of course, when CNN's Jake Tapper started passing along tweets that supported Greenwald and provided context for what was so dangerous about Bolsonaro targeting journalists, many people responded in anger at the idea of Greenwald being treated like a "real journalist" because they simply don't like the man. But that's a horrible attitude toward press freedom that actually bolsters strongmen like Trump and Bolsonaro. Greenwald's freedom cannot ever be dependent on whether he's nice to Clinton or whether he supports the Trump impeachment.

Given we're talking about Twitter responses, we can't really know how many of these people genuinely believe Greenwald should be tossed into jail by an authoritarian president with no respect for liberty or if they're just trolls. Nevertheless, nobody who actually places a high premium on freedom of thought and speech should be favoring the Brazilian government's attempt to punish Greenwald.

Below: Watch Reason TV's interview with Greenwald in 2015. The Reason Foundation (which publishes and Reason magazine) awarded Greenwald the 2014 Lanny Friedlander Prize for his role in exposing the National Security Agency's secret surveillance of Americans.