Attacks on the Press 2003: Brazil

Although Brazilian media outlets generally operate in a free environment, they have increasingly been targeted with defamation lawsuits that seek to silence them. Judicial interference and censorship, under the guise of protecting privacy and honor, continues unabated.

Defamation lawsuits–mostly civil complaints–against the media are on the rise, according to the trade magazine Consultor Jurídico. Businessmen, politicians, and public officials file multiple lawsuits against news outlets and journalists as a way to pressure them, strain their resources, and force them to halt their criticisms. Frequently, plaintiffs seek disproportionately high amounts of money as reparation for “moral and material damages,” which has given rise to an “industry of compensation” where people sue the media as a way of becoming rich. Judges increasingly admit such lawsuits in court and rule against the press. Some journalists argue that the media have become an easy target for defamation lawsuits because of flawed reporting and blurred boundaries between entertainment and news.

Throughout 2003, judges granted injunctions against the press that amounted to prior censorship. For example, in February, local media reported that a judge had ruled that the monthly Você S/A, owned by the Editora Abril publishing house, could publish a critical cover story about a job placement firm only on the condition that it included, with the same space and prominence, the firm’s reply to each individual claim in the article. If Você S/A failed to comply, it would have been held in contempt of court and subjected to civil and criminal penalties. The magazine chose to pull the story and, as a result, had to change the issue’s cover. Editora Abril appealed, and in late February, a three-judge panel from the São Paulo Justice Tribunal revoked the injunction, freeing Você S/A to publish the story without restrictions.

Having predicted a tough first year for President Luiz Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, and his Workers Party, the Brazilian media generally praised Lula’s commitment to austere economic policies. In October, several associations of media owners requested public financing from the government to bail out some of Brazil’s indebted media companies. Some critics of this proposal argued that the media were compromising their independence, while others argued that the government should not be rescuing cash-strapped companies. At the end of the year, the government was still considering the request.

Brazil continues to be a dangerous place for journalists. In July, Luiz Antônio Da Costa, a photographer with the weekly Época, was shot dead by robbers while working on an assignment in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo State. In June, unidentified men murdered Nicanor Linhares Batista, owner of a radio station and an on-air host in Limoeiro do Norte, in the northeastern state of Ceará. A controversial journalist, Linhares’ hard-hitting commentaries angered many local politicians and public officials. In October, the Ceará Public Prosecutor’s Office identified two public officials–a judge from the neighboring state of Pernambuco and his wife, Limoeiro do Norte’s mayor–as the individuals who ordered Linhares’ murder. Because of their status as public officials, the case was transferred to federal and state prosecutors, who had not brought formal charges against them by year’s end.

CPJ continued to follow developments in the case of murdered journalist Domingos Sávio Brandão Lima Júnior, the owner and publisher of the Cuiabá-based daily Folha do Estado in the state of Mato Grosso. Hired gunmen killed Brandão in September 2002. João Arcanjo Ribeiro, a police officer turned businessman who has been identified by federal and state prosecutors as the head of the Mato Grosso mafia, is suspected of ordering Brandão’s murder in retaliation for his newspaper’s criticism of organized crime and illegal gambling. Ribeiro is currently imprisoned in Uruguay while awaiting extradition.

In some cases, the Brazilian media engage in unethical conduct. In September, Brazil’s leading daily, Folha de S. Paulo, reported that the former government of the state of Paraná had “purchased” articles for 6.4 million reals (US$2 million) in the Paraná media in 2002. The articles, which did not disclose to readers that they were paid for and thus equivalent to advertisements, were glowing reports about the opening of public works commissioned by the former state governor and highlighted his achievements. The Paraná Public Prosecutor’s Office has since opened an investigation into the purchase of these articles. According to the Folha de S. Paulo report, the practice of publishing paid articles without proper disclosure to readers is widespread in the Brazilian media, particularly in small and medium-size publications.

The Brazilian media industry is highly concentrated, particularly the broadcasting sector, which is dominated by the huge Organizações Globo media group. In some of the largest markets, the same media group controls newspapers, network and cable television channels, several radio stations, and Internet portals. Insufficient, outdated, and lax regulations governing media concentration mean that the news and opinions that many Brazilians have access to lack diversity.

Throughout 2003, the government telecommunications agency, ANATEL, closed several community radio stations that had been operating without broadcasting licenses and confiscated their equipment. According to some estimates, more than 4,000 community radio stations currently on the air have formally requested licenses, but ANATEL has not responded to their requests. In March, the Communications Ministry, which controls ANATEL, decided to create a working group charged with finding ways to expedite, and add transparency to, the processing of license requests.

Meanwhile, the suspects accused of murdering TV Globo reporter Tim Lopes have yet to be tried. Lopes was beaten by members of an organized crime gang and brutally murdered by the group’s leader on June 3, 2002, while working on an investigative story about drug traffickers allegedly involved in the sexual exploitation of minors in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or shantytowns.