Brazil right-wing government puts gag order on environment agency

BRASILIA, March 13 (Reuters) - Brazil’s right-wing government has ordered environmental enforcement agency Ibama not to respond to requests from the media, stoking fears that President Jair Bolsonaro may be rolling back environmental protections out of the public eye.

Bolsonaro assumed office on Jan. 1 after pledging on the campaign trail to curb environmental fines, a key tool employed by Ibama to enforce its regulations. He has also floated the idea of pulling Brazil out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Activists and nongovernmental organizations fear the moves could drive up deforestation and other environmental destruction.

Ibama said in a statement on Wednesday it could no longer respond to press inquires.

“Under direction of the Ministry of Environment, all press requests related to Ibama operations should be directed to the ministry’s communications office,” Ibama’s press office said in a statement responding to request for comment on the matter.

The agency’s head of communications was forced out after weeks resisting the ministry’s order to redirect press inquiries, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The order releasing the communication chief from his position was published in the government’s official gazette on Wednesday, after which Ibama began complying with the ministry’s order, the source said.

The Environment Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

“Access to environmental information is one of the pillars of the National Environment System,” Adriana Ramos, legal and policy adviser at the Brazilian non-governmental organization Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), said in a statement.

“Reducing the mechanisms by which society is informed about environmental issues in Brazil is an affront to (the country’s freedom of information law) and the right to information, and only reinforces the view that they are promoting the dismantling of environmental management in Brazil,” the statement added.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Peter Cooney