RIO DE JANEIRO — Reading through the hacked cellphone messages of Brazilian prosecutors and judges, Glenn Greenwald knew he had a blockbuster story.
Greenwald, an American journalist, figured he was well equipped to weather the blowback. After all, he played a central role in exposing the secret intelligence programs leaked by Edward Snowden, the national security contractor, five years ago.
“I assumed it was going to be very similar to the Snowden story,” Greenwald said. “I’m going to know how to do this.”
He greatly underestimated.
The cellphone messages sent shock waves through Brazil when the news organization Greenwald co-founded, The Intercept Brasil, wrote about them last year, raising doubts about the fairness of the vast corruption investigation that upended the country and ultimately helped pave the way for the election of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.
This week, Brazilian prosecutors charged Greenwald with cybercrimes for his role in unearthing the messages, accusing him not just of publicizing the information, but of taking part in a “criminal organization” that hacked into the cellphones of several prosecutors and other public officials.
The criminal case against Greenwald, 52, quickly set off alarms over press freedoms in Latin America’s largest nation during the Bolsonaro era.
The combative Brazilian leader often dismisses critical coverage as “fake news,” and at his direction, government ministries last year canceled their subscriptions to the nation’s largest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. The president recently told a newspaper reporter to “shut your mouth” and taunted another by saying he had a “terribly homosexual face.”
Bolsonaro’s office declined to say whether the president or his aides were consulted about the decision to charge Greenwald. But politicians, lawyers and human rights groups call the case a worrisome development at a time when the Bolsonaro administration has raised alarm by targeting other constitutional protections, including the land rights of indigenous people and the enforcement of environmental regulations.
“Prohibiting the duty to inform is a cultural setback,” Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurelio Mello said in an interview. “I can’t conceive of a journalist being punished by the judiciary.”
Prosecutors say Greenwald played a “clear role in facilitating the commission of a crime” by encouraging the hackers to delete archives to cover their tracks. They also accused him of communicating with the hackers while they were actively monitoring private chats on Telegram, a messaging app.
Six other individuals were also charged, including four who were detained last year. Greenwald counters that he was meticulous in dealing with sources to avoid breaking the law.
Despite the charges against him, Greenwald seems to relish finding himself at the center of a bitter political debate once more — this time in the country he moved to in 2005 after falling in love with a man he met at the beach.
During his early years in Brazil, Greenwald wrote little about his adopted country, focusing more on American politics and technology issues. But in 2016, around the time Bolsonaro was starting to signal his interest in running for president, Greenwald co-founded The Intercept Brasil, an online news site created to inject an adversarial voice to the country’s media landscape.
In the years that followed, the site paid singular attention to Bolsonaro, with whom Greenwald has been trading insults for years.
In September 2017, Greenwald called Bolsonaro, who was then a congressman, a “cretin fascist” on Twitter. Bolsonaro replied to the journalist with a crude reference to anal sex: “Do you burn the doughnut?”
Soon after Greenwald and his colleagues at The Intercept Brasil began publishing articles about the hacked phone messages in June, Bolsonaro made his displeasure clear by suggesting that Greenwald could wind up in jail.
The articles tarnished the image of Bolsonaro’s most popular Cabinet member, Justice Minister Sergio Moro. Leaked messages showed that Moro, a former federal judge, provided strategic guidance to prosecutors as they tried former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for corruption and money laundering. Under Brazilian law, judges must be impartial arbiters.
That revelation called into question the legitimacy of Bolsonaro’s victory, because da Silva’s conviction disqualified him from running for president in 2018 at a time when he was leading in the polls.
The Intercept Brasil has been ardently critical of Bolsonaro’s presidency from the start, which has turned the journalist into a hero for many on the left and an enemy to many on the right. Supporters of the president find the crusading tone of Greenwald’s work especially grating.
That exasperation was on stark display last November when Augusto Nunes, a conservative magazine columnist, who was sparring with Greenwald on a live radio show, took a swing at the American journalist. As a video of the confrontation went viral on social media, many supporters of the president lamented that Nunes had failed to land a solid punch.
Greenwald and his husband, David Miranda, a Socialist congressman, have become among the loudest opposition voices in the Bolsonaro era.
“I think I trigger a lot of their primal rage,” Greenwald said, referring to Brazilians who support the president. “They view me as someone who deserves to be punished.”
Soon after the first articles based on the cellphone messages were published, Greenwald and Miranda began receiving death threats, including some that mentioned their 8- and 10-year-old sons. Greenwald said he considered Bolsonaro a dire threat to democracy.
“I think this movement believes in repression and governing through intimidation and fear, as opposed to persuasion and debate,” Greenwald said, referring to the president and his supporters. “One of the things you have to do, if that’s your vision, is to frighten your political opponents, credibly frighten them.”
The decision to charge Greenwald has been widely criticized by legal scholars, press freedom groups and even some conservative politicians in Brazil. Rodrigo Maia, the center-right Speaker of the House issued a strong rebuke, calling the case a “threat against freedom of the press.”
“Without a free press there is no democracy,” Maia added.
Experts on criminal law say they believe the case against Greenwald is likely to get dismissed soon, arguing there is no credible evidence in the 95-page complaint implicating Greenwald in criminal conduct.
The prosecutor who filed the case, Wellington Divino de Oliveira, startled the legal community last month by charging Felipe Santa Cruz, the head of Brazil’s bar association, with libel. That criminal complaint was based on critical remarks Santa Cruz had made about Moro, the justice minister. A federal judge dismissed the case this month, calling it groundless.
Under Brazil’s legal system, the charges against Greenwald must be accepted by a federal judge for him to become a criminal defendant formally. Greenwald’s lawyers on Wednesday submitted a brief to the judge that will handle that case, urging him to dismiss it.
Luiz Gustavo Grandinetti Carvalho, a former prosecutor who teaches criminal law at the State University in Rio de Janeiro, said he expected the charges to be tossed out.
“The case against Glenn is a case of a death foretold, meaning the death of the complaint is foretold,” he said. “Protecting sources is a Constitutional right we have in Brazil.”
Greenwald said the recent turmoil has taken a toll on his mental health. He and Miranda leave home now only in armored cars, protected by armed bodyguards. The couple has struggled with how much to tell their sons, whom they adopted from an orphanage.
“We’ve told them that the nature of our work means that there are a lot of people who don’t like us,” Greenwald said. “Talking to them about these dangers is difficult.”
Still, Greenwald said he felt “well positioned to take on a battle like this.”
“It’s very gratifying to wake up and feel like you’re doing something very purposeful for a country you love,” he said.