I woke up on the morning of the March 15th to a message from my partner. It read: “Flamengo [his football team] played really well.” and then, “But they killed Marielle.”
Marielle Franco was the fifth most voted city councillor in the state of Rio de Janeiro and a member of the left-wing party Socialism and Freedom (PSOL). She was a black woman from the Maré, a low income community in Rio de Janeiro, and had climbed the way up to a seat in the city council by engaging with activism geared towards women, black and LGBTQ+ populations – she was vocal about police violence in the communities of Rio de Janeiro and one of her last tweets pointed out the death of Mateus Melo, a young man who was shot while leaving a church in the community of Acari.
I knew Marielle by name, even though I’m originally from Sao Paulo and could not vote for her. She was a rising figure within both PSOL and the national political context. She was killed with four shots in a drive-by on the night of March 14th. Her driver, Anderson Gomes, also died during the attack.
Real news Vs. fake news
“But they killed Marielle”. It is still not known who killed Marielle Franco, though the investigation has raised some interesting questions – The Brazilian Newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported that the ammunition used to kill Marielle was part of the same lot that perpetrated the biggest slaughter in Sao Paulo, where 17 people were killed by three military policemen and one civil guard. The lot had been bought by the federal police in December 2006 and an investigation is being carried out on how the ammunition could have left Brasilia and reached Rio de Janeiro.
Other issues have stirred up within the context of Marielle’s death. Fake news on Facebook have portrayed the councillor as linked to drug lords. A legal team has been assigned to monitor those instances of slander. Nonetheless, the lies have spread like wildfire – a federal judge is now facing the possibility of disciplinary action after posting Facebook comments discussing how Marielle’s death was linked to alleged links to drug trafficking. According to the national broadcaster Globo G1, the judge Marilia Castro Neves publicly apologised and stated that she shared the information because she got it from a friend’s Facebook feed.
Resistance: #MarielleLives and human rights
Despite the spreading of fake news, the legacy of Marielle is still being upheld by activists in Brazil. In the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people took the streets to protest Marielle’s death – not only in Rio de Janeiro, but in several states around the country. Likewise, solidarity marches were organised in several European cities. According to The Guardian, the hashtag MarielleVive (Marielle Lives) trended on Twitter with over 3.6 million tweets in 42 hours – and news all around the world reported on the death of the councillor.
“But they killed Marielle” was not only the start of my morning. It was stamped on every newspaper, radio channel and social media: millions of Brazilians woke up to find out that Marielle had been shot four times and nothing had been stolen. In pictures publicized by Globo G1 and El Pais Brasil, it is possible to see protesters carrying signs that say “It was not a robbery, it was an execution” and “Black lives matter” – and most of all, “Marielle Lives”. These declarations have a double function: to demonstrate that there are other people fighting for the same beliefs as Marielle and to showcase the indignation of the population towards the incident.
For those involved in human rights activism in Brazil, this indignation has an undercurrent of fear. Marielle is not the first human rights activist to have been killed in the recent years in the country – Amnesty International has reported that at least 58 human rights activists were killed only in 2017. Marielle’s death was only the one with the highest profile – and her death became the catalyst for a series of protests and debates regarding the current context of both Brazilian and Rio de Janeiro’s policies. The state of Rio de Janeiro is currently under a federal military intervention, purportedly to fight the rise in crime and drug trafficking networks. But the intervention has been criticised by several political figures, from the public figure, journalist, doctor and politician Humberto Costa, in Globo G1, to Marielle herself, in an interview to Pavio, on February 19th. And it bears the question of how damaging it can be for Brazil’s young democracy (the country only left military rule in 1988).
Comments section on newspapers and Facebook posts are also a source of worry for human rights activists. Many readers have expressed that Marielle has got what she deserved because she supposedly supported the human rights of criminals.
This, alongside the fake news linking Marielle to gang leaders, demonstrate the existence of plenty of toxicity in Brazilian social media, as well as the perpetuation of false information regarding both Marielle and human rights.
What does this mean for human rights?
Only last year, Words in the Bucket reported on the issues scholars and activists were facing when working with gender in Brazil. At the time, we discussed how the opposition to human rights emboldened perpetrators of violence – the piece ended with “Human rights are under threat in Brazil and those who support them are also at risk, especially as the country gears up for its presidential election in 2018.”
And then comes a text message – “But they killed Marielle”.
What does this mean for those working with human rights in Brazil? The outpouring of support both at home and abroad has allowed us to hope that Marielle’s death could spark a change on the ways in which Brazil and Brazilians see the question of human rights.
But on the other hand, the spread of fake news and the victim-blaming that also followed on the wake of her death seem to point out a dangerous future for those working towards reducing violence and inequality in the country.