When the Muzzle Was King

When the
      Was King

Over a period of 10 years, starting December 13, 1968, Brazil lived
under AI-5 (Ato Institucional No. 5—Institutional Act Number 5), a presidential
decree that suspended the constitution, disbanded Congress, and created the so-called
previous censorship all in the name of "the defense of the necessary interests of the

Created in 1960 and elevated to an art form during the military dictatorship
(1964-1985), on June 18 the office of censor was eliminated from the Brazilian
bureaucracy. That was the day the Câmara dos Deputados (House of Representatives)
approved a law extinguishing the post. But not before the institution had created some of
the most unbelievable and hilarious-to-the-point-of-absurd pages of Brazilian history.
However, the Censorship Department, a branch of the Federal Police, was legally extinct in
1988 when the new Brazilian constitution went into effect.

There are still 240 people receiving monthly salaries ranging from $3,000 to $4,000 as
censors—84 of them actively working—even though they were occupying different
positions in the government machine. These men and women decided what Brazilians could
read in the papers, what books could be published, what songs could be heard and what
films and TV programs could be shown. For newspaper editors it was almost impossible to
keep up with all the taboos and items that could not be reported. The news blacklist
ranged from an obvious terrorist attack, bank robberies, labor strikes, and epidemics to
any criticism of the military and news about the censorship itself.

In 1973, for example, an order from the Departamento de Censura da Polícia Federal
(Federal Police Department of Censorship) barred the media from reporting on a meningitis
epidemic. Declarations by members of the progressive clergy were forbidden and bishops who
demanded more justice and a better distribution of the wealth, like Hélder Câmara and
Pedro Casaldáliga, couldn’t even be mentioned in the media. In May, 1974, a bus strike
paralyzed São Paulo, but nobody heard a word about it through the media.

Over a period of 10 years, starting December 13, 1968, the country lived under AI-5
(Ato Institucional No. 5—Institutional Act Number 5), a presidential decree by
general Arthur da Costa e Silva that suspended the constitution, disbanded congress,
cancelled the political rights of more than 60 congressmen, and created the so-called
previous censorship all in the name of "the defense of the necessary interests of the

Except for official communiqués, all of these events could not be reported, though,
and Rio’s daily Jornal do Brasil, for example, talked about the crisis in cryptic
format: "Weather black. Temperature suffocating. The air is unbreathable. The country
is being swept by a strong wind." And it is hard to imagine what did readers make of
Rio’s serious, now defunct, Correio da Manhã with this attempt at humor with the
headline, "Rich Cat Dies of Heart Attack in Chicago."

While other dictatorial regimes, even the ones installed at other times in Brazil,
didn’t hide their censoring efforts or try to justify the closing of publications by
denying printing paper or threatening advertisers, the Brazilian military regime that took
over in 1964 wanted to display an appearance of legality. This surreal status quo, such as
it was, became so real and comforting to the military that President Emílio Garrastazu
Médici made an anthological declaration about the subject. "Brazil is an island of
tranquility," he said, explaining that he had arrived at this conclusion after
watching TV news, which showed a world in conflict and a paradisiacal Brazil isolated from
the turmoil. He seemed oblivious of how the tranquility-island myth was maintained.

As a form of protest, daily O Estado de São Paulo published extracts from Os
Lusíadas (The Portuguese), an epic poem by the greatest of Portuguese poets, Luís
Vaz de Camões (1524-1580), instead of finding other news, as most other newspapers did to
fill up the gap left by the vetoed article. Jornal da Tarde, O Estado’s
afternoon sister publication, used the extra space for food recipes. These fillers showed
up in all places and often on the front page. In Rio, Tribuna da Imprensa, more
censored than most, filled its spaces with shockingly ugly black boxes.

Foreign correspondents in Brazil were also subjected to the military scissors.
Journalists had to present their stories to a censor before being able to wire them back
home. Not doing so would mean certain deportation. In 1973 the Bolshoi Ballet wasn’t
allowed to perform in Brazil under the pretext that the Soviet art would not be healthy
for the country.

Between 1974 and 1979 the censorship vetoed or made cuts or other changes in thousands
of magazine and newspaper articles, 840 songs, 117 plays and 47 films. Warner hasn’t tried
to show Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange since 1971, fearing it would be vetoed. When
the film was presented to the censors in 1978, it was liberated without cuts, but the
distributors were forced to insert some black spots to cover the actors’ genitalia.

The last act of censorship occurred in 1986 after the generals had already bowed out of
power. That year the José Sarney administration vetoed the showing of Je Vous Salue,
Marie (Hail Mary), a movie by French director Jean-Luc Godard.

Representative Sérgio Carneiro protested against the status granted the former censors
by the new law: "It’s an act of immorality to reward those who always were on the
side of the dictatorship and were part of a period that Brazil wants to forget," he
declared. The passage of the bill was a result of the lobbying effort by the censor
themselves to guarantee that they can retire as chief of police and criminal experts and
thus receive better pensions.

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