SÃO PAULO – A video conference between the managers of Catholic television and radio stations in Brazil and President Jair Bolsonaro on May 21 has spurred strong reaction of the the country’s bishops’ conference.

The teleconference gathered priests, Catholic politicians, and representatives of some of the biggest broadcasting companies connected to Catholicism in Brazil, such as Rede Vida and TV Pai Eterno. According to a June 6 story published by the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, they asked financial support from the government in exchange for positive coverage of the Bolsonaro administration.

The meeting was organized with the help of Congressman Major Victor Hugo, who represents the Bolsonaro administration in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s congress. According to the newspaper, he used to attend prayer groups associated with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

The article described how Father Welinton Silva, on behalf of TV Pai Eterno, offered “positive coverage of the government’s actions” in the COVID-19 pandemic if the government supported the station.

“Our reality is very hard and challenging, because we work with small donations and a low level of commercialization. With such difficulties, we really need a larger support from the government, so we can keep communicating the good news, (…) the good things the government may be accomplishing and doing for our people,” Silva told Bolsonaro, according to O Estado de São Paulo.

The newspaper also claimed Father Reginaldo Manzotti, a famous singer and the leader of the association Evangelizar é Preciso (Evangelizing is Necessary) – which owns several TV and radio stations – asked for a faster process for licensing new broadcasting stations and stressed the work that Catholics can do in order to improve Bolsonaro’s image.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro adjusts his face mask as he speaks to supporters while departing his official residence, Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Credit: Eraldo Peres/AP.)

Rede Vida’s owner João Monteiro de Barros Neto asked Bolsonaro for more interviews and his participation in Catholic events. He was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “Bolsonaro is a great hope.” Barros Neto also said Catholic broadcasting companies need to have more support.

Manzoni and Silva declined Crux’s request to comment on the story, while Crux was unable to contact Neto.

The same day the story was published, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), along with Signis Brasil (a Brazilian association of Catholic media) and Rede Católica de Rádio (Catholic Network of Radio) released a statement condemning the meeting.

The statement said the signatories “didn’t organize and didn’t have any involvement” with the video conference. The statement also said that each individual broadcasting company with a Catholic inspiration has its own statute and editorial principles, but none of them “represents the Catholic Church, or speaks on behalf of it or of the CNBB.”

“We received with surprise and indignation the news about the offer of support to the government by TV stations in exchange for funds and for the solution of problems connected to communication. The Catholic Church does not bargain. It establishes institutional relations with public agents and constituted powers guided by the Gospel values and by democratic, republican, ethical and moral values,” the statement said.

The CNBB, Signis Brasil, and RCR said they didn’t “approve of initiatives like that, which makes difficult the necessary unity of the Church” and mentions that we live in “hard times, seriously aggravated by the novel coronavirus pandemic”, in which it’s urgent to “truly work in communion, always open to dialogue.”

According to Alessandro Gomes, president of Signis Brasil, neither he nor the CNBB knew the meeting was being organized.

“We had never been communicated of it. The TV stations are independent. But they can’t speak on behalf of the Church,” he told Crux.

Gomes said that most broadcasting companies are facing financial problems, which got worse with the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. “We have been dealing with those problems for a while,” he admitted.

He said solutions will come from clear projects and new business models, not from governmental publicity. “That’s a completely outdated model, both from a commercial and from a political point of view,” Gomes added.

Since his presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro and the CNBB have clashed on several issues, including gun laws, the environment, and the protection of indigenous rights. Bolsonaro’s supporters usually associate the CNBB with the left-wing opposition.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Brazil, the CNBB has spoken in favor of social distancing measures and recommended the suspension of all public liturgical celebrations. Bolsonaro, on the other side, has attempted to minimize the seriousness of the disease and has never implemented a federal quarantine in Brazil, which has recorded over 37,000 deaths attributable to the disease.

If the institutional segments of the Church have been as odds with the Bolsonaro administration, traditionalist Catholic groups and parts of the Charismatic Catholic Renewal have often supported him. After winning the 2018 election, Bolsonaro visited the headquarters of the Charismatic movement Canção Nova, which also owns several broadcasting stations.