During elections, candidates have a forum that amplifies their statements and so too their repercussions, for better or worse. At these crucial moments, the public must have access to reliable, objective and evidence-based information. In any context, the right to freedom of expression must be protected, including the right to seek and disseminate information, ideas and opinions of all kinds. But in the context of an election this is of vital importance as individuals need to have information in order to exercise their right to participate in public affairs, as well as to express their opinion of candidates.
In Brazil, this right to information is under attack when one of the candidates – the current President – has consistently used an anti-human rights discourse ever since the previous elections. It is even more at risk given that Jair Bolsonaro is running for re-election and has not only persisted in making such speeches, but has intensified the impact through his actions in government and has used a discourse that questions the legitimacy of other fundamental public institutions in ensuring people’s rights and the guarantees of due process, such as the Federal Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court.
Candidates are free to express their ideas and mobilize those who support them, but this freedom of expression carries obligations and has limits and this is particularly important in the case of senior public officials. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for example, has determined that when senior public officials issue statements with regard to matters of public interest, they are “submitted to certain limitations since they must verify in a reasonable, but not necessarily exhaustive, manner the facts on which they base their opinions”. Therefore, those who hold public office “should do so with a diligence even greater to the one employed by individuals due to their high investiture, the ample scope and possible effects their expressions may have on certain sectors of the population, and in order to avoid that citizens and other interested people receive a manipulated version of specific facts.”
In addition, the Court has stated that those who hold public office must take into consideration that “as public officials they have a position of guarantor of the fundamental rights of people and, therefore, their statements cannot ignore those rights or constitute forms of direct or indirect interference or harmful pressure on the rights of those who seek to contribute with public deliberation through the expression and diffusion of their thoughts. This duty of special care is specifically true in situations of greater social conflict, alterations of public order or social or political polarization, precisely because of the set of risks they may imply for certain people or groups at a given time.”
As public officials, They have a position of guarantor of the fundamental rights of people and, therefore, their statements cannot ignore those rightsInter-American Court of Human Rights
In the highly polarized context, which is clearly present in Brazil, it is therefore the responsibility of all candidates, and especially those who currently hold the office of president, to live up to this responsibility. They must ensure that both their government proposals and their public discourse are in line with human rights and set out advances – never setbacks – in this area.
We continue to accompany human rights defenders, activists and journalists who have paid a high price for defending human rights in recent years, as well as people who, in one way or another, have been the victims of hate speech and anti-rights statements. And we call on the current President and other candidates not to waste time on controversies and attacks, but to take this opportunity to focus their efforts on discussing human rights issues that will be key for the country in the next four years, such as measures for a just recovery from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, police violence, the rights of Indigenous peoples, urgent measures to guarantee climate justice and ensure freedom of expression for all people, as well as the protection of human rights defenders and environmentalists.
The elections must not be used as a pretext for carrying out or promoting human rights violations.
Jurema Werneck is executive director of Amnesty International Brazil. Erika Guevara-Rosas is Americas director at Amnesty International.