It’s not too late to save Brazil’s universities and its democracy

An atmosphere of fear on campuses has served to mute expression and limit academic freedom, but action can still be taken to fight back, says Debora Diniz

February 28, 2020
Brazilian flagbearer
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In the summer of 2018, in the lead-up to Brazil’s presidential elections, I received an email. The senders said I would be shot. They said if I went into hiding, they would kill my family. They told me that if they couldn’t get to my family, they would massacre students, faculty and staff at my institution, the University of Brasília, and the research institute I co-founded.  

Dozens of my university colleagues were copied in the email.

As a scholar of bioethics whose work had recently informed a Supreme Court hearing challenging Brazil’s abortion laws, I had become a target for online harassment by supporters of then candidate Jair Bolsonaro and his campaign against human rights and liberal democracy.

Threats against my life and those around me forced me to leave my academic post and, eventually, the country. They also stoked fear at the university that prompted several staff members to take administrative leave. 

Proponents of illiberalism in Brazil, especially President Bolsonaro, know that university spaces are vital to liberal democracy. That is why they publicly demonise scholars and disparage them as “partisan” agents. In doing so, they hope to spark hatred that will promote an atmosphere of fear on campuses.

This, in turn, can mute expression and inquiry that challenge anti-democratic aims.  

Since 2018, actual and threatened violence has sown this fear throughout Brazilian higher education communities. Days before the general election in October 2018, a black female student from the University of Fortaleza was raped after receiving repeated threats online and on campus that the university would be “cleansed” of “her people” once Bolsonaro was elected.

Shortly after the general election, an anonymous letter posted on campus at a university in Pernambuco named several scholars specialising in gender studies and drug policy who were to be “banned” from campus.

Just a year after this wave of violence and intimidation began, President Bolsonaro gained unprecedented powers to appoint university leadership. More recently, an order issued by the ministry of education has limited the number of researchers allowed to attend overseas conferences, depriving countless scholars of the opportunity to exchange information and ideas. 

A new report by Scholars at Risk, Free to Think 2019, analyses attacks on higher education in Brazil, and troublingly, shows that they are part of a global phenomenon. Over the past year, for example, authorities in Sudan and Algeria have cracked down on student expression to quash nascent pro-democracy movements, while thousands of academics in Turkey have continued to endure politicised prosecutions for challenging those in power.

From Algiers to Brasília, attempts to shutter university spaces are a staple of authoritarian efforts to weaken democracy by excluding independent and critical voices from the public sphere. 

Brazil’s democracy is under threat, but the country’s rule has not yet spiraled into authoritarianism. Scholars and students face significant danger and intimidation, but attacks have not yet reached the volume and scale observed in other countries such as Turkey.

An intervention is still possible, but we need more individuals and organisations shining a light on attacks on campus communities and calling for enhanced protections.

We need colleagues in the global higher education community to call on leaders of their countries to demand that their Brazilian counterparts refrain from rhetoric that endangers scholars and open university spaces. As the Scholars at Risk report demonstrates, this is a global struggle, and one we must not fight alone.

Just as my fight for reproductive rights and the rights of women and girls in Brazil cannot advance without the solidarity and support of activists across Latin America and the Carribean, so too does our fight for academic freedom in Brazil depend on a global movement of dedicated higher education leaders, academics, and students.

Debora Diniz is an anthropologist and professor in the law faculty at the University of Brasília. She now serves as deputy director at International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere. 

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