Attacks on the Press 2004: Brazil


A proposed bill to regulate the press, as well as the attempted expulsion of a New York Times correspondent, highlighted the growing tension between the Brazilian media and the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula.

In August, the government submitted a controversial bill to Congress that would have regulated the practice of journalism in Brazil. The bill would have established federal and regional “journalism councils” comprising journalists with the power to “guide, discipline, and supervise the practice of the profession.”

Under the bill, journalists would have been subject to warnings, fines, censure, suspension for up to 30 days, or revocation of registration for violating the journalism councils’ ethical and disciplinary principles. The councils also would have been able to impose penalties for continuing to work despite being barred; not complying with the councils’ decisions; and not paying professional dues. Under the proposal, journalists would have been required to register with their local councils to practice journalism.

The bill was originally drafted by the National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ)—an umbrella group of regional labor unions that is generally supportive of the president’s Workers’ Party—and was revised by the Ministry of Labor and Employment. While government officials and FENAJ members claimed that tighter regulation was needed to guarantee quality and accurate information, many leading newspapers and journalists denounced the bill, pointing out that some of its most vocal supporters were Workers’ Party–affiliated journalists. Some called the proposal’s penalties excessive, while others argued that journalism is not a technical profession that requires regulation.

In mid-December, the Chamber of Deputies voted down the proposal. According to the Brazilian Press Association, a leading journalists organization, the proposal was “a threat to the constitutionally established principle of freedom of expression.”

On December 8, the Brazilian Congress enacted a constitutional amendment to reform the judiciary. To ensure Brazil’s compliance with international human rights treaties, Article 109 now grants the federal Attorney General’s Office the power to ask the Superior Tribunal of Justice, the country’s second-highest court, to transfer a case to federal jurisdiction if grave human rights violations are suspected. While Congress has yet to approve legislation implementing the amendment, federal prosecutors could use this new power to investigate the murders of journalists where state authorities are allegedly involved.

On May 11, the Ministry of Justice revoked the visa of New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter, who was outside Brazil at the time, after Rohter wrote an article about the president’s drinking habits that government officials found “offensive” to him and Brazil’s image. On May 15, after receiving a letter from Rohter’s Brazilian lawyers stating that he had not meant to offend Lula, the government restored his visa. The incident caused an uproar, and even journalists who questioned Rohter’s article criticized the government for its intolerance.

The press has lambasted Lula, a former union leader, for not holding regularly scheduled press conferences and instead conducting informal, one-on-one meetings with journalists. Government officials charge that the press is prejudiced against Lula and his leftist Workers’ Party.

Brazil remains a dangerous place for journalists, who are often targeted by corrupt politicians, criminals, and drug traffickers. On April 24, radio host José Carlos Araújo was shot dead in the town of Timbaúba in northeastern Pernambuco State. On April 28, police captured one of the suspected killers, who confessed to shooting Araújo because the radio host had accused him on the air of being a criminal. During the last five years, four journalists in Brazil have been killed for their work. In most of these cases no one has been prosecuted. CPJ continues to investigate the murders of Samuel Romã and Jorge Lourenço dos Santos, two radio station owners and hosts who often criticized local politicians. The men were also involved in local politics, which could have been behind their deaths.

Journalists and media outlets also suffer under defamation lawsuits from businessmen, politicians, and public officials who frequently seek substantial monetary damages. Judges often rule against the press in such cases.

While the Brazilian media often earn praise for their aggressive coverage and willingness to confront the government, the concentration of media ownership is a point of concern, particularly in the broadcasting sector, which is dominated by the Organizações Globo group. In some of the largest markets, the same media group controls newspapers, network and cable TV channels, radio stations, and Internet portals. Insufficient, outdated, and lax regulations governing media concentration ensure that much of the country’s news and commentary lacks diversity. Moreover, many regional politicians own broadcast media outlets.

In 2004, ANATEL, the telecommunications regulatory agency, closed dozens of community radio stations operating without broadcasting licenses and confiscated their equipment. Several thousand community stations currently on the air have formally requested licenses, but the approval process takes several years. Community radio groups complain that the government has not implemented the recommendations issued by a working group it created in 2003 with a mandate to find ways to expedite licensing. During the closures of several radio stations, heavily armed police accompanying ANATEL officials harassed the stations’ staff, according to community media organizations.