Brazilian Researchers Speak Out Against Restrictions on Academic Freedom

Brazilian researchers and professors are speaking out against the lack of academic freedom in the country since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in October. Restrictions on research and funding have caused those in Brazilian academia to fear for the future of their intellectual autonomy.

“Scholars at Risk” is a group that works to secure academic freedom from government influence. They only received one complaint from a professor in 2017, but that number has jumped up to 17 since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s campaign in 2018. As reasons for reaching out to the group, teachers have cited fears of physical retribution and increasing restrictions on research on LGBTQ, non-white communities, and women.

Conservative factions in Brazil have long argued that the education system is biased towards leftist ideology and against traditional family values. “Escola sem Partido” is one of the most visible groups that pushes this narrative. They seek to limit teachers’ ability to discuss gender and sexuality in the classroom. Such restrictions would apply to all levels of education, and to both public and private schools. This group has been elevated during the Bolsonaro administration, as it is supported by the Education Minister Ricardo Vélez.

The Bolsonaro administration is not afraid of causing controversy. Vélez announced on April 4 that textbooks in the country would be changed and no longer state that the military ousting of the democratic government in 1964 was a coup. He claims that the actions of the military instead represent an “institutional shift,” and that the dictatorship that followed was actually a democratic regime. This announcement reflects a greater widespread push by the government to do what many view as revising history in the process of promoting their political ideology. The head of the Brazilian Association of Textbooks criticized the plan by Minister Vélez, stating that the current textbooks are based on a wide survey of academic research, and any attempt to change them would be revisionist.

President Bolsonaro’s rapid ascent to the heights of the political establishment has deeply impacted Brazilian society. Researchers no longer feel safe conducting valuable research on minority communities for fear of retribution or firings. Although the courts have thus far halted Bolsonaro’s attempts, it is unclear if the judiciary is setting a precedent and will continue to stop future endeavors to limit academic freedom.