BRASILIA (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro slammed Brazil’s Supreme Court on Thursday for investigating an alleged disinformation and intimidation campaign by his supporters, as a political crisis deepened amid the country’s accelerating COVID-19 outbreak.
In an escalating confrontation with the court, Bolsonaro decried court-ordered police raids on Wednesday into the homes of business leaders, bloggers and lawmakers accused of spreading lies and threatening foes on social media.
“The Supreme Court investigation is targeting those who support me,” the president told reporters. “We will not have another day like yesterday. Enough!”
“Don’t plunge Brazil into a political crisis,” he warned, urging the court to suspend the investigation.
On a social media broadcast, Bolsonaro said the court’s investigation was unconstitutional and any move to restrict fake news in Brazil would establish censorship in the country.
The crisis in Brasilia continued to distract from efforts to control an exploding coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 25,000 and infected more than 400,000 people in the country – second only to the United States in confirmed cases.
Criticism of the top court on pro-Bolsonaro social media last year, including calls for its closure and threats against judges, led the chief justice to open the probe into alleged financing and coordination of a “fake news” network.
Bolsonaro’s tensions with the judiciary boiled over last week, when a judge released a video of a cabinet meeting where one of Bolsonaro’s ministers said the Supreme Court justices should be jailed.
The video was made public by the court in a separate probe into alleged presidential interference in law enforcement.
In the first opinion poll since that video was released, a Datafolha survey on Thursday showed 43% of Brazilians see Bolsonaro’s government as “bad” or “terrible” – up from 38% in April. But the poll showed Bolsonaro maintaining core support, with 33% of those surveyed rating the government as “good” or “excellent.”
Bolsonaro supporters, including retail entrepreneur Luciano Hang, Sao Paulo lawmaker Douglas Garcia and former congressman Roberto Jefferson, said their homes and offices had been searched on Wednesday with telephones and laptops seized.
They denied wrongdoing and called the investigation an attack on their freedom of expression. Bolsonaro said the “invasion of the homes of innocent people was unacceptable.”
Jefferson, head of the PTB party that backs Bolsonaro, said the clash with the top court will lead to chaos, adding the president should call on the armed forces to mediate.
The speaker of the lower house of Congress, Rodrigo Maia, came out in defense of the Supreme Court and said hate messages targeting it should be investigated.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito; Writing and additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes, Tom Brown and Lincoln Feast.)