U.S. reporter faces ‘insult’ suit in Brazil air crash aftermath

New York, September 29, 2009—U.S. freelance journalist Joe Sharkey, who covered a 2006 plane crash in Brazil in which he was a passenger, faces an onerous civil defamation suit for comments he said were wrongly attributed to him. On the third anniversary of the accident, the Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Brazilian judicial authorities to dismiss the case, which is based on the tenuous claim that the comments insulted the nation of Brazil.    

Sharkey, a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The New York Times and other U.S. outlets, told CPJ that he was served with the complaint on September 16 of this year although the lawsuit was filed in Brazil in 2008. The plaintiff is identified as Rosane Gutjhar, a resident of Curitiba in southern Brazil, who claims that Sharkey offended Brazil’s honor in comments made on the journalist’s blog and in interviews with international media following the crash, according to legal documents reviewed by CPJ.

Gutjhar is asking for a public retraction and 500,000 reals (US$279,850) in damages, Sharkey said. Gutjhar’s suit is based on a provision of Brazilian law that allows private citizens to claim damages for perceived insults against national honor. Such a broad standard for insult is uncommon in the region, CPJ research shows.

Specifically, the plaintiff claims that Sharkey insulted Brazil’s dignity by calling it “archaic” and its citizens “idiots.” But Sharkey said he did not write the comments cited in Gutjhar’s lawsuit. In a letter to CPJ, Sharkey said the quotes cited in the lawsuit can be traced to reader comments published on the Brazilian news Web site Brazzil, which he said were falsely attributed to him.

“We believe that that the suit against Joe Sharkey is unfounded as it is based on commentary wrongly attributed to the reporter,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ Americas senior program coordinator. “Brazilian judicial authorities should dismiss this case. Sharkey has the right to report on this tragic accident and voice his opinion on the ongoing investigation.”

On September 29, 2006, a mid-air collision killed Gutjhar’s husband and 153 other passengers traveling on a Brazilian commercial airliner that crashed with a U.S. business jet at 37,000 feet (11,000 meters) above the Amazon, according to press reports. Sharkey was aboard the business jet with two pilots and four other passengers, all of whom survived after an emergency landing in the jungle, the reporter told CPJ.

According to local and international press reports, Brazilian authorities opened a criminal negligence investigation against the two pilots flying the U.S. business jet. The pilots were detained in Brazil for two months before being allowed to return to the United States, according to news reports. They are now being tried in absentia. An investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board pointed to the Brazilian air traffic control system as the probable cause of the crash, according to press reports.

Immediately following the collision, Sharkey reported firsthand for the Times, and gave a series of interviews to U.S. and international outlets as soon as he returned to the United States. He has vigorously criticized Brazilian authorities on his blog and in interviews, characterizing the air traffic control system as very poor.

CPJ research shows that businessmen, politicians, and public officials have filed thousands of lawsuits in recent years against news outlets and journalists as a way to strain their financial resources and force them to halt their criticism. The practice is so common that 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.

“The case again Joe Sharkey and the onslaught of civil and criminal complaints against Brazilian journalists are unbecoming of a robust democracy such as Brazil,” Lauría said. “Brazil must update its defamation laws in a way that protects individual reputations while ensuring a healthy debate of public issues.”