Attacks on the Press 2001: Brazil

Sustained media coverage of corruption during 2001 helped increase pressure on powerful Congress members and other government officials, several of whom were forced to resign amid accusations of misconduct and embezzlement.

In February, the weekly ISTO reported that taped conversations between federal prosecutors and Senator Antônio Carlos Magalhães, who was president of the Congress at the time, revealed that Magalhães knew how senators had voted in a June 2000 secret ballot to impeach Senator Luiz Estevão. Later, it emerged that Magalhães and Senator José Roberto Arruda, leader of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s ruling coalition in the Senate, had acquired the secret voting records from an employee in the Senate’s voting registry. In May, the two senators resigned before the Senate Ethics Committee could expel them for violating Congress’ secret balloting system.

Also in May, Minister of National Integration Fernando Bezerra resigned after the weekly magazine Veja disclosed that a mining company in which he had invested received millions in public funds despite failing to meet contractual obligations with a government agency under his control. The press also gave sustained coverage to former Senate president Jader Barbalho, who resigned after the Supreme Federal Court (STF), the nation’s highest court, lifted his parliamentary immunity and gave officials investigating corruption allegations access to his financial records.

In a troubling development, the judiciary increasingly used prior censorship under the guise of protecting privacy and honor. In one high-profile case in July, a judge banned the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo from publishing transcripts of taped phone conversations that allegedly showed Rio de Janeiro State governor Anthony Garotinho authorizing a bribe. Other papers subsequently published the content of the recorded conversations.

In another case, a judge ordered the confiscation of the July 21 issue of the Rio Grande do Sul State weekly Tribuna Popular after it reported on corruption charges against a local mayor.

Media outlets have also suffered disproportionate monetary damages in civil lawsuits. DEBATE, a São Paulo State weekly, faces possible bankruptcy after its owner was ordered to pay US$150,000 in damages in a 1995 defamation lawsuit. While the award was lowered somewhat in successive appeals, higher courts have upheld the ruling. The case is still moving through the appellate process.

Brazilian journalists continue to face harassment and violence for their work. In late February, police summoned Nilson Mariano and Altair Nobre, journalist and editor, respectively, for the Porto Alegre daily Zero Hora, and ordered them to disclose their sources for an article about a local police chief. Although the Brazilian Constitution guarantees the protection of sources, the journalists were warned that failure to comply could result in prosecution for false testimony, but they remained silent.

In mid-August, journalist Mário Coelho de Almeida Filho was shot and killed the day before he was to testify in a criminal defamation lawsuit. The police official in charge of the murder investigation believes it was a contract killing, but it is not clear whether the journalist was killed for his reporting. CPJ continues to follow developments in the case. At least four Brazilian journalists have been killed because of their work since 1996, according to CPJ research. In most of these killings, the crimes remain unsolved, and those responsible have gone unpunished.

In August, the Associação Nacional de Jornais (ANJ), an association of newspaper publishers, disclosed the results of a survey on the credibility of the Brazilian media. The survey revealed that newspapers were the second most trusted institution in Brazil, behind the Catholic Church. TV stations and radio stations came in fourth and fifth, respectively, behind Protestant churches. The federal government, Congress, and political parties lagged far behind. While the press celebrated the survey’s findings, critics pointed out that the percentage of people who said they trusted the papers the most (15 percent) was very low.

An October ruling suspended Decree-Law 972, issued under military rulers in 1969, which required citizens to hold a university diploma in journalism before registering as a journalist with the Ministry of Labor. In 1985, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that mandatory licensing of journalists violates the American Convention on Human Rights.

According to the ANJ, a bill to reform the 1967 Press Law remains stalled in the Chamber of Deputies. Troubling provisions in the legislation would impose enormous fines for defamation and make media owners liable for unlimited damages. If the bill becomes law, small media outlets could be bankrupted by a single defamation case. The Senate is currently considering another bill that would prohibit public officials from leaking information to the press that could damage the reputation, honor, or privacy of any person currently under investigation.

May 4

Mário Quevedo Neto, Folha de Vilhena

Quevedo, a correspondent for the Vilhena-based daily Folha do Sul in the city of Porto Velho and a press adviser to Congressman Daniel Pereira of the Rondônia State Legislative Assembly, was convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced to community service.

The case stemmed from an article Quevedo wrote in March 1998, when he was the editor of Folha de Vilhena, reporting that inmates in Vilhena’s prison were jailed under poor conditions, and that prison facilities were in a state of decay and abandonment. Quevedo held Judge Adolfo Theodoro Naujorks Neto (no relation to the journalist), who was in charge of inspecting state prisons, responsible.

Judge Naujorks filed a criminal defamation suit against the journalist and initially requested monetary damages, which he later withdrew.

According to the journalists’ organization Federação Nacional dos Jornalistas, the Vilhena District Court ruled in 1998 that Quevedo had defamed Judge Naujorks, despite the fact that conditions at Vilhena’s prison warranted judicial intervention.

The journalist was sentenced to four months at a prison-shelter (which requires inmates to sleep at the prison but allows them to go to work during the day) and fined 1,300 reais (US$500).

After Quevedo appealed, the Rondônia State Court commuted his sentence to four months of community service at the State Ombudsman’s Office in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia. In addition, Quevedo was ordered to pay the legal costs of the case and a 360 reais fine (US$145).

The journalist began serving his sentence on May 4, after missing a deadline to file an appeal at the federal level, and finished it on August 31.

July 21

Tribuna Popular

Officials confiscated the July 21 issue of Tribuna Popular, a weekly paper in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, after it reported on corruption charges against local authorities.

The confiscated issue contained a front-page story reporting that São Lourenço do Sul mayor Dari Pagel and five other former and current officials had recently been charged with embezzling about 20,000 reais (US$8,000) in 1997 and 1998 from a retirement fund created for municipal workers.

According to local newspapers, the same story was reported in the July 21 issue of the Pelotas-based daily Diário Popular and was subsequently picked up by the Pelotas daily Diário da Manhã, as well as the regional edition of the daily Zero Hora.

While Mayor Pagel took no legal action against these publications, he did file suit requesting the confiscation of the July 21 edition of Tribuna Popular, which he claimed had damaged his reputation.

On July 21, Judge Ana Paula Braga Alencastro ruled in favor of the mayor.

Tribuna Popular filed an appeal requesting that the impounded copies be released and planned to file a lawsuit requesting damages, according to the national daily Folha de S.Paulo. No further information on the case was available at press time.

August 16

Mário Coelho de Almeida Filho, A Verdade

An unidentified gunman killed Coelho, administrative editor and publisher of the local thrice-monthly newspaper A Verdade, outside his house with a .45-caliber handgun.

The journalist was murdered just one day before he was scheduled to testify in a criminal defamation lawsuit.

Some local observers claimed that Coelho had persuaded local politicians to bankroll A Verdade in exchange for favorable coverage, according to the Brazilian media news Web site Conversely, other sources claimed that Coelho had used the threat of negative coverage to extort money from politicians.

The suit against Coelho was brought by Magé mayor Narriman Zito and her husband, José Camilo Zito dos Santos, mayor of the local municipality of Duque de Caxias, after A Verdade printed the minutes of a state legislative assembly session during which a political rival of Zito accused her of having an affair with one of her security guards.

A Verdade often criticized local politicians for alleged corruption, and Coelho’s father told the Brazilian daily O Globo that his son had received several phone threats five months before his death.

On September 14, acting on an anonymous tip, Magé police arrested retired Military Police sergeant Manoel Daniel de Abreu Filho as a suspect in the murder, according to O Globo. The person who tipped off the police also told them that de Abreu Filho had worked as a security guard for Rio de Janeiro state assemblywoman Andréia Zito, daughter of Duque de Caxias mayor Zito dos Santos.

At the time of his arrest, de Abreu Filho worked as a bodyguard for the wife of Waldir Zito, mayor of the city of Belford Roxo and brother of José Camilo Zito dos Santos.

After witnesses were shown a picture of de Abreu Filho and recognized him as the murderer, Judge Geraldo José Machado ordered that he be held in prison. The police seized two handguns from de Abreu Filho and said they would perform ballistic tests to determine if they were used in the crime. The police are also seeking to determine whether de Abreu Filho acted on his own or followed orders.

October 4

Sérgio Fleury Moraes, DEBATE

In an ongoing civil defamation lawsuit, the Superior Court of Justice upheld a ruling ordering Fleury, publisher and owner of the Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo-based weekly DEBATE, to pay damages to Judge Antônio José Magdalena. As a result, his paper faced bankruptcy.

In a series of 1991 articles, DEBATE reported that the city government had given Judge Magdalena a home phone line for his private use, even though the local fire station had been denied telephone service. DEBATE also reported that Judge Magdalena’s rent was paid with public funds, while the former residence for city judges remained vacant. DEBATE claimed that Judge Magdalena’s living arrangements, although not illegal, constituted an “immoral perk.”

In 1994, according to DEBATE, the National Audit Office ordered the city to stop paying the judge’s rent.

In 1995, Judge Magdalena filed a civil action against Fleury and DEBATE. The judge argued that the paper had endangered him and his family, invaded their privacy, and damaged their reputation by publishing his phone number and a picture of his house. He requested monetary damages totaling US$140,000.

In 1996, a lower court in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo ruled in Magdalena’s favor. According to DEBATE, the sentencing judge was a close associate of Magdalena’s.

A 1999 ruling from the São Paulo State Court of Justice upheld the sentence but lowered the award to US$67,000. Fleury maintained that Magdalena won the cases because judges tend to protect each other.

Fleury appealed the case to a five-judge panel of the Superior Court of Justice. While two judges dismissed the appeal, one judge postponed the proceedings. On October 4, the appeal was rejected.

According to DEBATE, the award granted to Judge Magdalena, which may reach 400,000 reais (approximately US$150,000) including legal costs and interest, was excessive because the paper is a small-circulation publication.

In an October article, Fleury told the monthly Imprensa that his only property is the small offices that house the weekly, which are worth 100,000 reais (about US$37,000).

DEBATE appealed the case to a Superior Court of Justice panel comprising 10 judges, including the five who already rejected the appeal. If that appeal fails, Fleury can still appeal to the Supreme Federal Court, the highest court in the country. At year’s end, the case was before the Superior Court of Justice.