Attacks on academic freedom

The Great Wave, Sète. Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884). Albumin silver print from glass negative. 1857.


The conditions for an effective guarantee of academic freedom, provided for in article 206 of our Federal Constitution, are increasingly threatened

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazilian society has witnessed an increase in acts of embarrassment and persecution of researchers from different fields of science. These actions have originated both in instances of the Brazilian State and in groups ideologically in tune with the current government.

In the exercise of their current activities of knowledge production, researchers have been victims of defamation, threats, aggressions, detention by police force during field work, as well as being object of inquiry and process by the MPF[I]. The intention of the agents of such threats is to frighten scientists and make it difficult for their work to be made known to the public. This work serves to feed, with tested and proven data, the understanding of the problems faced by society as a whole.

The conditions for an effective guarantee of academic freedom, provided for in article 206 of our Federal Constitution, are increasingly threatened.

The organization Scholars at Risk (composed by Global Public Police Institute – GPPi, Center for the Analysis of Freedom and Authoritarianism -LAUT and Varieties of Democracy – V-Dem) points out that Brazil currently has the second lowest guarantee of academic freedom in South America. This index is composed of indicators of freedom for scientists to develop their research agendas, the possibility of disclosing and debating the results, the conditions of university autonomy, the guarantee of diversity of cultural manifestations and the undue occurrence of political surveillance on campuses.

The multiplication of serious episodes of violation of the rights of professors and scientists points to the need to protect academic freedom as an integral part of fundamental public freedoms. To combat the forces of obscurantism, which seek to intimidate and silence those responsible for the production of free and disinterested knowledge, it is necessary to protect and defend threatened researchers and ensure the exercise of freedom of research, teaching and dissemination of thought, of art and knowledge. But, on the other hand, it is also necessary to reflect on what researchers could do to protect, in their practices, the critical vitality of their own intellectual activity, that is, the internal freedom of the meanders of thought.

The sciences face today, in Brazil, a great challenge. Under normal conditions of temperature and pressure, the work of scientists who study society, for example, aims to achieve at least two basic objectives: a) proceed with a semantic control of words as ordering schemes of the social world through a logical critique and lexicology of current language; b) denaturalize social facts considering that they do not result from ineluctable processes and that they could have followed other paths. Such challenges are squared when, as in the Brazilian case, a veil of obscuration is cast over the social world, the product of deliberate actions aimed at misinforming, generating public anguish and degrading the meaning of words.

Denial of the facts of science and anti-intellectualism hostile to the critical spirit confiscate language; they make words, instead of being carriers of the communication of the spirit, start to carry threat and falsehood, taking the form of insult, to defend assertions that cancel each other out and to evoke logics that refute logic. There is even an attempt to change the already documented past[ii]. In this context, the challenge of exercising the work of thought and language to understand objects that raise questions and searches becomes greater.

Science is now required to also help society to identify and combat disinformation and intentionally disseminated prejudices, those that contradict the evidence around which a common life should be built, principles of justice elaborated and projects for the future debated. For the country. This role is crucial when disinformation and falsification of facts are instruments of political action; and even more so when they become an instrument of government political action. If, for example, the pandemic is not recognized as a fact, there is no debate or policy to face it, only misinformation. When, in June 2020, the Ministry of Health failed to report the accumulated number of deaths, claiming it intended to keep only the data recorded in the previous 24 hours, a government official quipped: “Just add it to the data from the previous day”[iii]. His intention was, of course, to subtract and not to add.

Inequality, large-scale death and racist practices happen in the real world, but the representation of this world can be distorted when a paragovernmental and governmental system of disinformation is set up. Falsifying numbers of victims of the epidemic is an act of “psychosocial” manipulation[iv] of the population – using counterinformation to confuse a supposed enemy – in this case, Brazilian society itself.

When rulers disqualify statistics on unemployment produced by the public sector itself, as is the case of the IBGE, disqualify scientific data on deforestation, as in the case of INPE, and try to hide statistics on victims of the pandemic, the defense of the autonomy of science also becomes a defense public liberties and democracy.

"Dying is everyone's fate"[v], alleges the official, defending that nothing should be done to prevent the death of blacks and indigenous people, groups affected in a more than proportional way by the pandemic. But it is not destiny that increased, in Brazil, the number of victims of COVID in relation to all other countries; or that takes the lives of black children hit during police raids on the favelas or that favors the invasion of indigenous lands and the contamination of the peoples who inhabit them. The ministerial meeting of the Brazilian government on April 22, 2020 [vi] it showed how governments plan the expropriation of indigenous lands, create conditions for deforestation, land grabbing and the destruction of cultural heritage; how they act to dismantle precautionary measures against the epidemic; how they act to arm the agents of violence in the favelas and outskirts. What was seen on that occasion was a situation similar to that of the camera that filmed the Minneapolis police choking a black man with his knee. And it was the government's own cameras that showed, in that scene, power putting its knee on the breathing apparatus of democracy. The Social Sciences are certainly not a camera, but they can help to understand why racism remains and how it is embedded in post-colonial and post-slavery power.

Helping society to think is also a way of helping society to breathe, to find the air, energy and intelligence necessary to face the enemies of intelligence and democracy. When those in power call freedom the threat to freedom, call democracy the opposite of democracy, the use of words implodes from within, subordinating itself to the logic of violence, the full expression of authoritarianism. That is why, in the terms of Edward Saïd, the social scientist, in his public dimension, is called upon to “induce a change in the moral climate of debate, so that aggression is seen as such, the unjust punishment of peoples or individuals is avoided, the recognition of freedom and rights is established as a norm for all and not for a select few”.[vii].

In the current Brazilian situation, in order to change the (im)moral climate of the debate, it is necessary to provide explanatory and supporting elements for society to fight complacency with inequalities, with the concentration of land and resources in the hands of a few, as well as with all the forms of discrimination that – such as racism, machismo, homophobia – are revived in authoritarian conjunctures.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] On 20/5/2021, the Attorney General of the Republic, Augusto Aras, filed a criminal complaint in the Federal Court of the Federal District against Conrado Hübner Mendes, professor of Law at USP, for criticizing his role as Attorney. Hundreds of university professors subscribed to Mendes' criticism of Aras in a document called We subscribe: “post”, “servant”, “missing”. There they stated that the attempt to intimidate “a university professor who criticizes him, whose freedom he should respect and defend, compared to the constant passivity he reserves for the President of the Republic, whom he should rigorously supervise, exemplifies the lukewarmness with which he exercises his office”.

 [ii] George Orwell, 1984, 23rd edition. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1998.


[iv] The term psychosocial was recently evoked by a former Minister of Health during a session of the CPI on COVID (on 20/5/2021) as a reason to justify that a president of the republic address any kind of outrageous speech to the population. It is part of the military vocabulary of psychological warfare, very commonly used in the rhetoric of the Dictatorship in the 1970s, and revived, in the current situation, to attribute patriotic status to lies.



[vii] Edward Said, Intellectual representations. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, p. 102.

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