A majority of Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to move forward with a sprawling fake news investigation targeting some of President Jair Bolsonaro’s most influential supporters, possibly furthering a clash between the judiciary and the executive.
The federal probe has enraged the president as it ensnares prominent lawmakers, businesspeople and popular Internet activists who are accused of coordinating a digital smear campaign against state institutions, including the court itself. On Wednesday, justices said it’s the court’s constitutional right to proceed with the inquiry that’s focused on threats against its members.
“Proposing that the Supreme Court and Congress should be shut down is not protected by freedom of speech,” said Justice Luiz Edson Fachin, rapporteur of the case. “Whoever does that has to know that he will face justice.”
Fake news arose as a major issue in Brazil during Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential campaign, and for months, the court has been conducting a probe into alleged conspiracies to promote false information online. The court deliberations are on-going, and two justices must still vote on Wednesday while three more will do so on Thursday.
The investigation intensified in May after the Supreme Court backed a separate probe into allegations that the president tried to interfere with the federal police. Bolsonaro was accused by his former justice minister of coercion and other crimes, though he denies any wrongdoing.
The fallout consequently turned the court and its justices into the target of social media attacks from Bolsonaro’s supporters, who accused the institution of acting politically to undermine the presidency. On May 27, under orders from Justice Alexandre de Moraes, the federal police executed search warrants on prominent figures and seized mobile phones, computers and bank records. Moraes also summoned eight sitting lawmakers to testify in the matter.
On Wednesday, Moraes said the attacks against the court far exceed what would be considered criticism that’s protected by the constitution. Some perpetrators have threatened justices with physical harm, Moraes added, giving examples.
“A lawyer from Rio Grande do Sul state said that the daughters of court justices should be raped and killed,” Moraes said. “Another asked how much would it cost to pay someone to shoot the justices in their backs and to set the court on fire.”
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro claims the investigation is politically motivated and represents an assault on free speech. The day after the raids, he threatened to defy the court, saying “absurd orders are not to be followed.”
Read more: Fake News Probe Fuels Crisis Between Bolsonaro and Top Court (3)
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