Brazilian journalist sentenced on defamation charges

New York, July 10, 2009–A judge in the northern state of Pará ordered prominent Brazilian journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto, at left, on Monday to pay US$15,000 in damages in a civil libel suit. The decision is part of a systematic pattern of legal harassment against Pinto, who faces more than 10 lawsuits from powerful plaintiffs, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Judge Raimundo das Chagas Filho in the Amazonian city of Belém ordered Pinto to pay brothers Ronaldo and Romulo Maiorana Jr., owners of the Belém-based daily O Liberal, 30,000 reals (US$15,000) in addition to legal costs, according to local press reports. The daily is part of regional media group Organizações Romulo Maiorana.

The judge also banned Pinto from publishing the names of the Maiorana brothers in Jornal Pessoal, a semimonthly newspaper he publishes and edits. If the journalist doesn’t comply with the judge’s decision he will be fined with 30,000 reals (US$15,000), and can be charged with contempt, according to the Brazilian press. Pinto told CPJ he will challenge the judge’s decision under Brazilian law and has plans to appeal if his objections are dismissed by the judge.       

The charges stemmed from a 2005 story published in Jornal Pessoal in which the journalist criticized the economic power and influence of the media group. The Maiorana brothers argued that Pinto had damaged the family’s reputation.   

“This barrage of lawsuits against Lúcio Flávio Pinto is nothing more than legal harassment against Pinto brought by influential plaintiffs,” said CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “We call on Judge Raimundo das Chagas Filho to overturn the sentence. By suing Pinto, the plaintiffs are trying to silence one of Brazil’s leading journalists.”

Pinto, a 2005 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner, has reported on drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and political and corporate corruption in the Amazon region for more than 40 years. He has been physically assaulted, threatened, and targeted with dozens of criminal and civil defamation lawsuits as a result of his investigative work.

The journalist faces 11 criminal and civil defamation lawsuits filed by members of the Maiorana family. Four of them are civil and the rest criminal. The seven criminal suits were temporarily suspended after the April 30 decision by the Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal’s decision to strike down the infamous 1967 Press Law, which had imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.

Pinto has been convicted three times in criminal court and found liable twice in civil court, including this latest decision. One criminal conviction has been overturned, and the two others expired because appeals courts failed to meet deadlines.

Pinto has written several articles about the Maiorana family and the history of Organizações Romulo Maiorana. Pinto alleged that the media group used its vast influence to pressure companies and politicians to buy advertising from the media group’s outlets. The Maiorana media group also owns the television station TV Liberal, the local affiliate of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest television network, and a radio station.

Criminal and civil defamation lawsuits against the Brazilian media have numbered in the thousands over the last five years, according to CPJ research. Businessmen, politicians, and public officials have filed multiple lawsuits against news outlets and journalists as a way to 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 that has become so common it’s known as the “industry of compensation.” The lawsuits are filed in a politicized climate in which lower court judges routinely interpret Brazilian law in ways that restrict press freedom, CPJ has found.