By Gabriel Stargardter
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil's leading presidential candidate vowed to defend freedom of the press after his tirades against the media and reports of his supporters attacking journalists raised fears that civil liberties might suffer if he is elected.
Soon after describing the media as "trash" in a Thursday tweet, far-right congressman and former army captain Jair Bolsonaro turned around and called journalists "friends," pledging to defend their work.
"When they cover the facts, without political activism and partiality, the media fulfil the valuable role of informing people," he said on Twitter, adding "WE ARE AGAINST ANY TYPE OF SOCIAL CONTROL OF THE MEDIA AND INTERNET."
Like U.S. President Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign he has emulated, Bolsonaro has derided critical press coverage as "fake news" and connected directly with supporters on social media, where he posts video chats, retweets right-wing outlets and suggests the media is part of a corrupt system out to stop him.
In a Friday interview, his presidential rival, leftist Fernando Haddad, criticized Bolsonaro's campaign for "fostering a culture of violence."
Bolsonaro suspended campaign events after surviving a knife attack during a rally last month, but still rode a wave of anger over political graft, rising violence and a weak economy to win 46 percent of first-round votes on Sunday.
Opinion polls show him with a double-digit lead over Haddad ahead of the Oct. 28 run-off.
In Brazil's most bitterly polarized election since the end of military rule in 1985, Bolsonaro's stabbing by a mentally disturbed man has been the most prominent in a string of violent acts hanging over the race.
Some incidents involve his supporters allegedly attacking or threatening journalists, along with gay people and other minorities that he has denigrated. Some of his comments have led to him facing federal charges of hate speech, which he has dismissed as politically motivated.
On Thursday, a car transporting Haddad was blocked by a pick-up truck in Brasília, according to his communication staff. The unidentified occupants of the vehicle shouted epithets against Haddad, his aides said.
Haddad said a man had been identified in connection with the incident and is being monitored by police.
CLIMATE OF FEAR
Since the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, which Haddad's Workers Party (PT) called a media-supported "coup," crowds at leftist rallies have also been accused of intimidating camera crews from major TV stations.
However, many reporters say the animosity from Bolsonaro supporters has been more intense, targeting specific journalists for social media attacks that have led to physical confrontations.
"There is no doubt we've had violent episodes and a growing climate of fear," said Diego Escosteguy, former editor-in-chief of newsweekly Epoca and critic of the PT.
"Journalists, blacks, women, transsexuals, gays, PT voters - many are afraid," he tweeted on Friday. "That fear is not paranoia. It is the result of what Bolsonaro and his allies say - and what the candidate does not say."
The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) has identified more than 60 instances of physical violence or its imminent threat against journalists during the campaign and more than 70 cases of online persecution.
Bolsonaro attempted to address the issue during a rare news conference in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, although his efforts were undercut by supporters in the room.
"Members of the press, or maybe I should say 'friends,' ... we're going to guarantee the freedom of the press," he said.
"We want for you to really be independent, and be responsible in everything that you write," he added.
But when it was the turn of a female reporter from newspaper Folha de S.Paulo to ask a question, she was hissed and booed by his supporters, prompting party leader Gustavo Bebianno to remind them of their commitment to a free press. Folha broke news of police investigating a senior Bolsonaro aide this week.
Regarding the aggressions allegedly carried out by his supporters, Bolsonaro said he had zero tolerance.
"If by any chance it was somebody who voted for me, I reject that sort of vote. They committed a crime, they'll have to pay," he said. "My people are not disseminating hate."
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro; Additional reporting by Ana Mano in São Paulo; Editing by Brad Haynes and Rosalba O'Brien)