PORTUGAL: Far-Right targets Anti-Racism Activist

– ECF update to the CIVICUS Monitor, published on 30 March 2021, available here.


The rise of the far right and targeting of anti-racism activists

In the past year there has been a growth in far-right movements, both in terms of their presence on the streets and in political support. In January 2021, far-right candidate Andre Ventura came third in the presidential elections, gaining 12% of the vote. Rita Leote from Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD and Francisco Venes from Academia Cidadã reported that the increasing presence and influence of the far-right has led to a deterioration of social peace and dialogue, resulting in a less enabling environment and the backsliding of rights for minority groups such as people of colour, the Roma population, migrants and LGBTI communities. The growing influence of the far-right took place in parallel to the growth of Black Lives Matter movements, who have debates on systemic racism, Portugal’s colonial past and the consequences it has today.

The recent death of the country’s “most decorated war hero”, Lieutenant-Colonel Marcelino da Mata, has sparked debates on Portugal’s colonial past, resulting in threats to freedom of expression and the targeting of anti-racism activists. Namely, on 12th February 2021, Mamadou Ba, a prominent anti-racism activist from the advocacy group SOS Racismopublished a post on Twitter where he said he found it “disgusting” that CDS-PP (conservative-right party) was requesting a decree of national mourning over the death of “bloodthirsty” Marcelino da Mata, who served in Portugal’s Colonial War and is believed to have committed war crimes for which he was never legally accused. In retaliation, the CDS-PP group called for Mamadou Ba’s removal from a government work group aimed at addressing racism. This was followed by the launch of a public petition calling to deport Mamadou Ba (who is a Senegalese-born Portuguese citizen) for his “slanderous statements on Twitter”. The petition has been signed by over 31,000 people. A counter campaign was set up in support of Mamadou, against racism and acknowledging the importance of recognising the damaging impact of Portugal’s colonial past on today’s society.

In a recent interview Ba gave to TVI24, when asked about the petition, he said that it was clearly racist,

“The last sentence of the petition says it all, ‘may this expulsion serve as an example!’ An example for what? So that a person of colour can never express themselves in the public sphere again?”

“Is that the democracy we want?… We are in a democracy, people can disagree with what I say, they can refute what I say, but they can’t keep me from speaking.” (translated from Portuguese).

In addition, Prime Minister Costa’s recent comments in an interview with TVI24 have raised concerns, in which he drew parallels between leader of the far-right Andre Ventura and Mamadou’s “radical discourses”:

We have, both in terms of immigration policy and refugees, a continued history that has resisted all changes in government and that, with small drifts, has always been maintained as consensual. Neither André Ventura nor Mamadou Ba represent what is the feeling of the generality of the country.” (Translated from Portuguese).

Mamadou responded, expressing concerns for “equating racists and anti-racists”, commenting:

It is an attitude, in addition to cowardly, deeply dishonest, illustrating if necessary the lack of a political proposal to combat racism. In short, the removal of the Prime Minister, more than a sad and inglorious strategy of isolating the anti-racism, it is a regrettable lack of political courage. The fight against racism does not have a prime minister who devalues it.” (translated from Portuguese).

These open attacks on freedom of speech and on anti-racism activist Ba contribute to the development of a less enabled civic space and suppression of freedom of speech. At the same time, Francisco Venes commented that “mainstream media does not understand the risk of the far-right presence and discourse”. These factors pose a concern for other minority groups, whilst support for the far-right continues to grow.

Incidents against journalists

  • On 14th November 2021 during a protest staged by the restaurant and other entertainment industries over COVID-19 support, the news crews of television channel Televisão Independente (TVI) and Observador radio were physically pressured and verbally assaulted, as reported by Mapping Media Freedom. One of the organisers of the protest accused journalists of misrepresenting the total number of protesters attending the protest. Following this, angry protesters surrounded the radio team and one media staff member had to be escorted away due to threats. On 16th November 2020 the Union of Journalists (SJ) filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office.
  • During December 2020 and January 2021, journalists from the television network Sociedade Independente de Comunicação (SIC) who investigated far-right populist party Chega faced insults, harassment and threats online. The threats were reported by Pedro Coelho, an academic and journalist for SIC, who collaborated with José Silva and Andres Gutierrez in the investigation. Threats of physical violence were directed at Coelho, with comments suggesting that “he should be beaten up, raped or shot”. Another comment called for someone to “finish off” the journalists, with another stating that “a rope around their necks would not be enough”. The International Press Institute (IPI) said that the “comments were a clear attempt to demean, discredit and intimidate the journalists”.
  • In January 2021 it was revealed that four journalists were surveilled for two months in 2018 and their personal communications monitored, with some of their bank accounts reviewed as part of an investigation ordered by the Lisbon public prosecutor. The journalists are Carlos Rodrigues Lima from weekly news magazine Sábado, Henrique Machado, former journalist at Correio da Manhã currently at TVI, Silvia Caneco, a journalist of news magazine Visão, and Isabel Horta of Portuguese television network Sociedade Independente de Comunicação. The decision to surveil the journalists is linked to an ongoing investigation of high-level leaks from a police official related to the “e-Toupeira” corruption case, involving Benfica football club. However, the surveillance of the journalists was carried out without the authorisation of the investigating judge. Journalists’ unions have raised concerns about the threat this case poses to media freedom and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.


Revised law on public utility intends to control CSOs

In November 2020, the Portuguese government proposed changes to the Public Utility Framework Law. The public utility status is a special status for CSOs/foundations/associations that are considered important for society and is beneficial in that it gives organisations certain rights such as more diverse funding opportunities. Whilst the government is framing the redrafting of this law as a step towards simplifying procedures, the language and tone of these measures casts doubts on the legitimacy and credibility of the public utility sector. For example, the law states intentions to “ensure that they (foundations and entities with the status of Public Utility) do not deviate from the purposes for which they were created or pursue fraudulent intentions”. Alongside this, the draft law proposes new inspection mechanisms and an obligation for every public utility organisation to renew its public utility status every eight years (when previously there was no obligation to renew the status). These demands for transparency and accountability suggest that there is a need for civil society to be checked and controlled.

Furthermore, the consultation with CSOs in the re-drafting process was exclusionary, with only some CSOs being consulted. For example, Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD reported that they were not consulted in the preparation of the law. This is concerning as it is the only organisation representing their subsector.

Consultation with CSOs for COVID-19 recovery planning

The consultation period for COVID-19 recovery and resilience planning lasted just one week, with limited opportunity for CSOs to provide input. ANIMAR (Portuguese Platform for Local Development) prepared a report outlining their insights on the proposed Plan for Recovery and Resilience. In their report, they highlight concerns on the absence of the social and solidarity-based economy sector as a pillar in the strategic vison. ANIMAR emphasises that this pillar is vital not only for its contribution to citizenship and the ability to aid poverty and social exclusion, but also for its vital role in filling the gaps in public policy and ensuring no one is left behind. The Recovery Plan, ANIMAR argues, overly focuses on the market economy as a solution to problems, pointing out that this is also a strong catalyst for inequalities. Thus, there is a need to expand the focus beyond the private economy and to prioritise the needs of communities and sustainability of societies, e.g. via local development and promoting equality.

No consultation with civil society for priority setting for upcoming Portuguese presidency

CSOs have reported that there was no consultation or process for civil society to feed into priority settings for the upcoming Portuguese Presidency of the EU. Despite this, Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD developed a comprehensive consultation process with Portuguese CSOs to identify priority areas and advocate discussion to help provide answers to global challenges. They prepared a report of civil society priorities for the Portuguese Presidency, mapping out CSO priorities for the current period. To date, CSOs are yet to see evidence of these priorities being meaningfully considered by the government.

Peaceful Assembly

Anti-lithium movement grows

While strict coronavirus measures and heavy policing have meant that there have been fewer assemblies in this period, it is worth mentioning the recent growth of the anti-lithium movement in Portugal. Fransisco Venes reports that there are between 10 and 15 community groups across the country that are mobilising against proposals to open lithium mines in their regions. These new mining proposals come due to greater demands on electric car manufacturing, as proposed by the European Green New Deal, which has led to a growth in lithium exploration in several sites in Portugal and Spain. Lithium mining also appears in the Portuguese Recovery and Resilience Plan.

Due to pressure from local movements against lithium mining, one movement in the Covasdo Barroso region has successfully pushed for a public consultation and environmental impact assessments, which will likely delay the opening of the mine. The proposed site is located in an FAO recognised agricultural heritage area, with the nearest house just 200 metres away. The government and mining companies have been accused by communities of a lack of transparency in the planning processes and have been called out for failing to carry out environmental impact assessments. The groups said:

“The Portuguese government assumes this fact and the extraction of lithium and other metallic resources in the country as a given, even when the Strategic Environmental Assessment approved in the last State Budget is still in progress and when not even the Impact Assessment of the affected areas has entered the public consultation phase.” (translated from Portuguese)

Restaurants stage protests

On 14th November 2020, restaurant and bar workers staged a protest over government support during COVID-19. In addition, during December 2020 some restaurant owners staged a hunger strike and camped outside the Portuguese parliament, stating that the support received by the government during the pandemic is insufficient.