Brazil’s constitution guarantees free expression and prohibits censorship.
But in practice, the news media are impeded by defamation lawsuits so common they’re known as the “industry of compensation” and by lower court judges who routinely interpret Brazilian law in ways that restrict press freedom.
Authorities won important convictions in the recent murders of two journalists, although Brazil remains a dangerous country for the press. Four journalists have been killed for their work in five years. As in much of Latin America, journalists who work in large government and business centers such as Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro often enjoy more protection than their colleagues in impoverished, isolated regions of the Amazon and the northeast. In the country’s vast interior—where the influence of government is weak and that of drug trafficking and corruption, strong—journalists censor themselves for fear of retaliation.
In recognition of outstanding journalism in such dangerous conditions, CPJ honored Lúcio Flávio Pinto with one of its International Press Freedom Awards in 2005. An award-winning journalist based in the city of Belém, in the Amazonian state of Pará, Pinto has faced dozens of criminal defamation lawsuits and received numerous threats for his critical reporting on a variety of subjects, including drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and political and corporate corruption. Owner of the small semimonthly Jornal Pessoal, Pinto has also criticized the local media for its superficial coverage of the Amazon region.
CPJ has documented a pattern of judicial censorship over several years. In the name of protecting privacy and personal honor, judges banned media outlets from covering corruption allegations involving public officials. Lower court judges used Article 20 of the civil code, in particular, to grant injunctions against the press. In September, for example, a payroll administrator accused of embezzling public funds persuaded a judge to ban the daily A Tribuna, based in the port city of Santos, from covering administrative hearings into the charges. The judge also set a daily fine of 50,000 Brazilian reals (US$22,000) should the newspaper fail to comply with his order. The São Paulo State Court of Justice, an appellate court, temporarily set aside the ban while it examined the judge’s decision.
Criminal and civil defamation lawsuits against the media have numbered in the thousands over the last five years, according to local news reports. Businessmen, politicians, and public officials often file multiple lawsuits against news outlets and journalists as a form of pressure, straining their financial resources and forcing them to halt their criticisms. As part of the “industry of compensation,” plaintiffs seek disproportionately high amounts of money for “moral and material damages.”
According to surveys done by legal publications and media associations, judges often admit such lawsuits into court, eventually ruling against the press. Both the penal code and the infamous 1967 Press Law—the latter approved under a military regime—criminalize defamation and slander. The Press Law sets prison terms of six months to three years for slander, while the penal code calls for three months’ to a year’s imprisonment for defamation.
In an encouraging sign, one high-ranking judge has been vocal in questioning the press law. Edson Vidigal, president of the Superior Tribunal of Justice, Brazil’s second-highest court, has said in several widely covered speeches and interviews that the law was “implicitly revoked by the 1988 Constitution.” Vidigal, himself a former journalist, has also declared that Article 20 of the civil code is incompatible with constitutional guarantees of free expression, and that journalists’ ability to cover the news will be severely restricted as long as both laws remain in effect.
In August, Magistrate José Celso de Mello Filho of the Supreme Federal Tribunal—Brazil’s highest court—issued a ruling that was widely hailed as an important precedent for press freedom. Dismissing allegations of subversion against three journalists of the newsweekly Veja—which had published several articles critical of the government—Mello Filho wrote: “It should be noted…when criminal repression of journalistic criticism is sought, as it is in this case, that the state does not have any power over the words, ideas, and convictions voiced by communications media professionals.”
The concentration of media ownership remained a concern, particularly in a broadcasting sector dominated by the Organizações Globo group, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies and the national leader in advertising revenue. In some of the largest domestic markets, the same media group controls newspapers, network and cable TV channels, radio stations, and Internet portals. A number of regional politicians own broadcast media outlets, particularly in the northeastern states of Alagoas, Maranhão, and Ceará.
During 2005, community media organizations complained that 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. In February, the government established a group of officials from several ministries to find ways to expedite licensing and supervise the operations of community radio stations.
In a positive development, several men charged with murdering journalists in two separate cases were brought to justice. Six men accused in the 2002 murder of TV Globo reporter Tim Lopes were tried, convicted, and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. The seventh and final defendant, whose testimony helped convict the other six men, was sentenced in October to nine years and four months in prison. Lopes was beaten by members of an organized crime gang and brutally murdered by the group’s leader while working on an investigative story about drug traffickers allegedly involved in the sexual exploitation of minors in a Rio de Janeiro slum.
The mastermind was convicted in the Lopes case and received a 28-year sentence. That was doubly encouraging because masterminds are convicted in fewer than 15 percent of journalist murders worldwide, CPJ research shows.
In June, two men charged with involvement in the 2002 murder of journalist Domingos Sávio Brandão Lima Júnior were convicted and sentenced to 15 and 17 years in prison. In September 2002, hired gunmen killed Brandão, the owner and publisher of the Cuiabá-based daily Folha do Estado in the state of Mato Grosso. João Arcanjo Ribeiro, identified by federal and state prosecutors as the head of the Mato Grosso mafia, has been charged with killing Brandão in retaliation for his newspaper’s criticism of organized crime and illegal gambling. Arcanjo Ribeiro, in prison in Uruguay, was awaiting extradition.