Top Brazilian journalist held hostage by punitive lawsuitsAward winner cannot attend presentation; CPJ seeks changes
November 15, 2005 12:00 PM ET
Belém, Brazil, November 15, 2005—A leading Brazilian journalist being honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists with a prestigious International Press Freedom Award cannot attend the presentation this month because a series of punitive criminal lawsuits has made him a virtual hostage in his Amazonian hometown.
“It’s crucial for me to stay in Belém to follow up on the 18 lawsuits pending against me. I have to pay maximum attention to the finest details in the lawsuits. For all practical purposes I’m on house arrest,” said Lúcio Flávio Pinto, editor of semimonthly newspaper Jornal Pessoal.
He said the plaintiffs—who include powerful judges, media owners, politicians, and businessmen displeased by his probing coverage—are using every legal avenue “until I’m forced to go to jail.”
CPJ today condemned the systematic legal harassment of Pinto, which is based on the enforcement of an anachronistic 1967 press law that was adopted under a military dictatorship but is of dubious constitutionality today. CPJ urged the Brazilian federal government to file a petition with the Supreme Federal Tribunal, which has the authority to overturn this law used by powerful plaintiffs to silence not only Pinto but journalists nationwide.
Pinto, based in the city of Belém, in the Amazonian state of Pará, has reported on drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and political and corporate corruption. In return, he has been threatened, physically attacked, and targeted with dozens of criminal and civil defamation lawsuits in all. He said the 18 pending criminal and civil defamation lawsuits have two common elements: all are based on Brazil’s infamous 1967 press law, which provides for harsh penalties, including imprisonment; and all stem from articles involving issues of public interest.
“It’s shameful that one of Brazil’s great journalists has become a prisoner in his hometown, unable to leave for fear of these punitive legal actions,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said in New York. “The goal of these lawsuits is to censor one of Brazil’s great reporters in violation of Brazil’s constitutional guarantees. The federal government must take action to ensure that constitutional protections have meaning.“
The regular court dates that accompany the lawsuits prevent Pinto from traveling outside his home; missing even a single court date or deadline, he said, puts him at risk of imprisonment. Because of the drumbeat of litigation, Pinto told CPJ that he devotes more than 80 percent of his time defending himself in court, leaving little time to work on book projects or Jornal Pessoal, the paper he founded in 1987. Pinto is left to defend himself because lawyers are fearful of taking on the powerful plaintiffs.
“At least three times a week I have to go to the court building in Belém. I’m constantly doing research on legal materials and drafting statements in support of my defense. That’s currently my main job, the one I devote most of my time to. There are times when my life limits itself to responding to lawsuits,” Pinto said.
CPJ Americas Research Associate Sauro González Rodríguez traveled to Belém to meet with Pinto and review court records of the lawsuits. CPJ’s review reveals a pattern of cases brought by influential and wealthy plaintiffs displeased by critical coverage.
• Pinto has faced two criminal lawsuits and one civil lawsuit brought by Cecílio do Rego Almeida stemming from a series of articles that Pinto published in Jornal Pessoal in 1999 and 2000 describing the appropriation of timber-rich land in the Amazon rainforest by companies controlled by do Rego Almeida, owner of the construction company CR Almeida, and his sons.
• João Alberto Paiva, a former judge with the Pará State Court of Justice, filed one civil lawsuit and two criminal lawsuits against Pinto in connection with two articles published in 2000 in which Pinto criticized the judge for granting an injunction that restored temporary control of land contested by Brazilian authorities to a company controlled by do Rego Almeida.
• Pinto faces more than 10 criminal and civil defamation lawsuits filed by members of the Maiorana family, which owns the Belém-based daily O Liberal through the media group Organizações Romulo Maiorana. The media group also owns the television station TV Liberal, the local affiliate of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest television network, and a radio station. Pinto has written several articles about the Maiorana family and the history of Organizações Romulo Maiorana. One article alleged that the media group used its vast influence to pressure companies and politicians to buy advertising from the media group’s outlets. Two members of the Maiorana family have asked a judge to bar Pinto from ever writing about them and their companies in Jornal Pessoal.
Pinto has been convicted three times in criminal court and found liable once in civil court. One conviction has been overturned; the other cases are pending appeal. Pinto still has “first-time offender” status, which means that he’s entitled to suspension of a prison sentence on his first conviction. But if one conviction is upheld on appeal, the next could bring a prison sentence of up to three years.
A dictator’s law survives
The 1967 press law appears to run counter to Brazil’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits censorship. The press law, an archaic remnant of a military dictatorship, defines alleged violations in broad terms such as: reporting deemed offensive to public morals; reporting that a plaintiff finds damaging to his reputation or offensive to his dignity; reporting that is considered subversive to public and political order; and reporting of “true” facts that are considered distorted or provocative.
Criminal and civil defamation lawsuits against the Brazilian media have numbered in the thousands over the last five years, according to news reports. Businessmen, politicians, and public officials file multiple lawsuits against news outlets and journalists as a way to pressure them, strain their financial resources, and force them to halt their criticisms.
Plaintiffs seek disproportionately high amounts of money for “moral and material damages,” a practice has become so common it’s known as the “industry of compensation,” according to CPJ research. The lawsuits are filed in a politicized climate in which lower court judges routinely interpret Brazilian law in ways that restrict press freedom, CPJ’s analysis found.
The statute of limitations has expired in several complaints against Pinto, yet trial judges refused to dismiss the lawsuits. In January, Pinto was beaten by plaintiff Ronaldo Maiorana in the middle of a restaurant. Though Pinto filed a complaint, authorities have taken no action in the case. In addition to large civil penalties, the press law prescribes prison terms ranging from six months to three years, plus fines. Brazil’s penal code also contains several provisions that treat defamation as a crime, setting prison penalties of six months to two years.
In one encouraging sign, Edson Vidigal, president of the Superior Tribunal of Justice, Brazil’s second-highest court, said in several widely covered speeches and interviews this year that the press law was “implicitly revoked by the 1988 Constitution.” Vidigal, himself a former journalist, has said that journalists’ ability to cover the news is severely restricted as long as the press law remains in effect.
Imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, but prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. In August 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced a ruling overturning the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the daily La Nación. The Costa Ricabased court ruled that the sentence violated his right to freedom of expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay damages to him. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation and suggesting that such laws should be repealed.
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