An Intro to Brazil’s History of Censorship

Lead Photo: Women protest against the far-rights presidential candidate on September 29, 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images
Women protest against the far-rights presidential candidate on September 29, 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images
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Brazil has a long history of censoring artists and the arts. In fact, several artists had their works censored and had to flee the country during the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985). Movies, TV shows and songs all had to go through “official channels” before they reached the general public and many were censored—in part or in full—along the way.

If in the dictatorship, censorship was the rule, in democracy there were some emblematic cases as well—take, for example, the censorship of musical group Planet Hemp in 1997 or the censorship of an image of Christ the Redeemer at the Beija Flor samba school parade in 1989.

“Brazilians are permissive with the idea of information control. From the private life of celebrities to memoir books, etc,” says Eliseu Neto, psychoanalyst and LGBT activist.

Censorship cases have risen since Jair Bolsonaro’s rise in Brazilian political life—from a minor and even comical politician to a possible candidate and now president. Art exhibitions (Queer Museum), films (such as the screening of a film about guerrilla fighter Carlos Marighella) and books (case of the Rio de Janeiro Book Biennial) are all under attack.

“Bolsonaro and right-wing movements have not changed any laws, but have created a cultural environment more affectionate to the violent silencing of artistic expression,” explains economist and philosopher Joel Pinheiro.

Bolsonaro represents a profound setback in terms of freedom of expression and some might even say a return to the period of the Military Dictatorship—which the president himself constantly praises and defends. The commonality between cases of censorship in the past and now “is a feeling of moral justification in shutting up what and whoever escapes the morality of the majority,” says Pinheiro. But the escalation in recent cases shows that there’s room for the situation to worsen.

Here are some of the most relevant and mainstream cases of censorship in post-dictatorship Brazil:

1989: Censorship Against Beija Flor

A member of Beija Flor samba school performs during the second night of 2020 Rio’s Carnival Parades at the Sapucai Sambadrome on February 24, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Carnival is one of the biggest popular festivals in Brazil and the parade of samba schools in Rio de Janeiro is the highlight of the party. In 1989, Brazil was experiencing a period of crisis. The famous director of parades Joãosinho Trinta decided to create an allegory representing Christ the Redeemer surrounded by beggars. But the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro, who owns the important monument, prohibited it. 

The solution Trinta found went down in history—Christ the Redeemer entered the Sambadrome covered with a black canvas and a sign reading “Even forbidden, watch over us” – with beggars surrounding it.

1997: Planet Hemp's Unlawful Arrest

Planet Hemp performs during Lollapalooza 2013 at Grant Park on August 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The six members of Brazilian rap-rock group Planet Hemp were arrested after a show in Brasilia on charges of promoting marijuana use. Both the very existence of the band and the imprisonment of the members ended up driving discussions about the legalization of marijuana in the country—which continues to be illegal, despite some advances.

The musicians were imprisoned for five days and released after the Federal District Court of Justice found technical errors in the arrest. The group attracted thousands of people to their concerts and they were a commercial success, which led conservative sectors of society to try to silence them. The musicians could have been sentenced for up to 15 years under the Anti-Drug Law, and a great debate arose not only over the legalization of marijuana but also over artistic freedom, placing the artistic and progressive class on one side and religious and conservative leaders on the other.

2019: LGBT-Friendly Comic Book Confiscation

Facade with entrance sign of the National Library of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Getty Images

The culmination of the process of widespread censorship that took place in Brazil undoubtedly occurred during the Rio de Janeiro Book Biennial in 2019. It is the largest literary event in Brazil, including everything from a book fair to lectures and several activities related to literature. That year, the city’s mayor, Marcello Crivella, tried to censor an LGBT-friendly comic book of the Avengers in order to defend “the family” and children of Rio. Crivella ordered the confiscation of all editions of the magazine and caused an uproar. Still, he found support among sectors close to President Bolsonaro and others such as YouTuber Felipe Neto who decided to buy all editions of LGBT-friendly comic books and books to distribute them free of charge among visitors to the Biennial.

2019: Censorship Against Crusoé Magazine

German countess and fashion model Veruschka reads a Fatos Magazine with her face on the cover, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 1967. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The censorship against Crusoé magazine on April 15, 2019 revolves around some shady business involving Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Dias Toffoli. Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered the removal of an on-air report in which Justice Dias Toffoli was cited in a corruption scandal. News website The Intercept Brasil decided to challenge the attempt at censorship and publish the entire story on its website. On April 19, Moraes backpedaled after immense pressure from human rights organizations and journalists.

Moraes believed the document that mentioned Justice Toffoli was an invention of businessman Marcelo Odebrecht, who was involved in a corruption scandal, in an effort to harm Toffoli. The document effectively existed and, in spite of continuing to disagree with the tone of the reportage, Justice Moraes was forced to allow its publication.

2020: Censorship of Books in Rondônia State

State flag of Rondônia – Brazil. It is located in the North, it borders the states of Mato Grosso east, north Amazonas, Acre west and the Republic of Bolivia to the west and south. Getty Images

In February, the state of Rondônia decided to ban 42 classic literature books from public schools because their themes would allegedly go against family values and were considered inappropriate for kids and teenagers. 

The list included everything from “Mystery Tales” by Edgar Allan Poe to Machado de Assis’ “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas [The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas]” and Nelson Rodrigues’ classics “Beijo no Asfalto [The Asphalt Kiss]” and “A Vida Como Ela É [Life as it is]”.

In Brazil, it is common for conservatives and religious fundamentalists to unite behind “protecting children and the traditional family,” as a means to censor works that they consider LGBT-friendly, contain descriptions of sexual acts, simply question the status quo, or lead the reader to exercise critical thinking. That’s true for books, films, art exhibitions and more.

Historian Murilo Cleto believes that religious fundamentalism “establishes a perverse relationship with the public space. In other words, it becomes less a place for mediation and production of consensus and more a space where certain private values are imposed through force as the result of fragile and limited notion of politics.”

The ban was lifted a few hours after it was placed. But the case sparked outrage all over the country as it was considered part of the escalation of religious fundamentalism that sees threats against its values in even literature.