YESTERDAY AFTERNOON, THE official Twitter account of Brazil's Federal Police (its FBI equivalent) posted an extraordinary announcement. The bureaucratically nonchalant tone it used belied its significance. The tweet, at its core, purports to vest in the federal police and the federal government that oversees it the power to regulate, control, and outright censor political content on the internet that is assessed to be "false," and to "punish" those who disseminate it. The new power would cover both social media posts and entire websites devoted to politics.
"In the next few days, the Federal Police will begin activities in Braslia [the nation's capital] by a specially formed group to combat false news during the [upcoming 2018 presidential] election process," the official police tweet stated. It added: "The measures are intended to identify and punish the authors of 'fake news' for or against candidates." Top police officials told media outlets that their working group would include representatives of the judiciary's election branch and leading prosecutors, though one of the key judicial figures involved is the highly controversial right-wing Supreme Court judge, Gilmar Mendes, who has long blurred judicial authority with his political activism.
Among the most confounding aspects of the Twitter announcement is that it is very difficult to identify any existing law that actually authorizes the federal police to exercise the powers they just announced they intend to wield, particularly over the internet. At least as of now, they are claiming for themselves one of the most extremist powers imaginable -- the right of the government to control and suppress political content on the internet during an election -- with no legal framework to define its parameters or furnish safeguards against abuse.
Proponents of this new internet censorship program have suggested they will seek congressional enactment of a new law to authorize the censorship program and define how it functions. But it is far from clear that Brazil's dysfunctional Congress -- in which a majority of members face corruption charges -- will be able to enact a new statutory scheme before the election.