In victory for press, high court strikes down repressive law

New York, May 7, 2009–The Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal’s decision to strike down the 1967 Press Law, a measure that imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander, is a crucial step forward in the campaign to eliminate criminal defamation laws in the Americas, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ and other groups had long urged that the anachronistic law be removed from the books.

Brazil’s highest court, in a 7-4 vote dated April 30, ruled that the 1967 law violated constitutional guarantees of free expression, local and international press reports said.

Adopted under the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1961 and 1985, the provision set prison terms of up to three years for criminal defamation. The press law defined alleged violations in broad terms that included 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. It also allowed authorities to censor media outlets and writers, and to seize publications.

“We commend Brazil’s highest tribunal for eliminating this notoriously repressive press law,” said CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “This is a milestone in the battle to eliminate criminal defamation in Latin America and around the world.”

Brazilian journalists can still be jailed for up to two years under criminal defamation laws that remain in the penal code. “We urge Brazilian authorities to continue in the spirit of this ruling and repeal all remaining criminal defamation laws,” added Lauría.

The 1967 Press Law had been used to systematically harass critical journalists. Criminal defamation lawsuits against the Brazilian media have numbered in the thousands over the last five years, according to CPJ research and 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.

One notable case is Lúcio Flávio Pinto, editor of semimonthly newspaper Jornal Pessoal and a 2005 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Pinto, based in the city of Belém in the Amazonian state of Pará, reported on drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and political and corporate corruption. In return, he was threatened, physically attacked, and targeted with dozens of criminal and civil defamation lawsuits, Pinto told CPJ in a 2005 interview.

As part of a systematic campaign aimed at eliminating criminal defamation laws in Latin America, CPJ had lobbied against the restrictive Brazilian 1967 provision. In November 2005, CPJ had urged the Brazilian federal government to file a petition with the Supreme Federal Tribunal to overturn the Press Law, which was used by powerful plaintiffs to silence journalists nationwide.

In February 2008, the high court ruled that 22 of the Press Law’s articles were incompatible with the 1988 constitution, which guarantees free expression and prohibits censorship. The tribunal suspended the articles until it could take a final look at the constitutionality of the law this year.

The new decision supplements the growing body of international legal opinion that journalists should not be jailed for criminal defamation. In September 2004, the Inter-American Court, the legal arm of the Organization of American States, ruled that Paraguayan politician Ricardo Canese’s criminal defamation conviction violated international law. The court declared that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights, which Paraguay had ratified, because they were not “necessary in a democratic society.”

In an August 2004 ruling that overturned the criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, the Inter-American Court said that critics of public officials must have “leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest.”

And in April 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa signed a bill that effectively eliminated criminal libel and slander at the federal level, directing such complaints to the civil courts. Mexico joined El Salvador as the first countries in Latin America to repeal defamation as a criminal offense.