RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian political cartoonists on Tuesday deployed their pens in defense of a colleague who faces a call by President Jair Bolsonaro’s government for a criminal investigation over a satirical cartoon it alleges violated national security.
Bolsonaro’s Justice Ministry on Monday afternoon asked the Federal Police and prosecutors to investigate artist Renato Aroeira, whose drawing of the far-right president was shared on prominent journalist Ricardo Noblat’s Twitter account. The cartoon depicted Bolsonaro using a paintbrush to transform a red cross — the symbol used at hospitals including those treating COVID-19 patients — into a swastika.
The administration’s request for an investigation cited a law that establishes up to four years in prison for defaming the president. Free speech advocates denounced what they interpreted as an intimidation tactic, and at least six cartoonists on Tuesday shared related drawings on social media as a show of solidarity with Aroeira.
One cartoon depicted Bolsonaro as a doll wearing a bracelet with a swastika and pierced with pencils rather than pins. “It’s uncomfortable, no?” wrote its illustrator, Nando Motta. Another showed Bolsonaro alongside coffins presumably filled with COVID-19 victims while he points at a Aroeira at his drawing board. More than 45,000 people have died from the virus in Brazil, the second most of any nation.
Bolsonaro has frequently sparred with the press and the swastika has been used in editorial cartoons not as a specific reference to Nazism and the systematic persecution of Jews, but to represent the specter of authoritarianism. A Supreme Court justice last month sent a private message to his colleagues, later leaked to local media, that compared Brazilian political circumstances to Germany’s Weimar Republic before the rise of Adolf Hitler.
The presidency’s communications secretariat said Aroeira’s cartoon went further than permitted by law, as it falsely accused Bolsonaro of Nazism.
“Accusing someone innocent of one of the gravest crimes in history isn’t humor, it’s a crime,” the secretariat said Tuesday on Twitter. “Political satire is one thing, calumny is another, including under the disguise of ‘humor.’”
Eduardo Evangelista, a cartoonist known as Duke at the newspaper O Tempo de Minas Gerais, was one of Aroeira’s peers who made a similar drawing after the possibility of investigation.
“Demonstrating support for Aroeira is marking a position: we’re not silent, and we won’t easily accept an authoritarian advance,” he said.
The Brazilian Press Association said in a statement that rejection of criticism is characteristic of dictators and that threats won’t silence defenders of a free press.
Aroeira, who has faced lawsuits and criticism before during his nearly 50-year career, said this is the first time he has felt nervous under the weight of the state. Still, he’s unrepentant.