• Judges in defamation cases issue sweeping censorship orders.
• Ex-police officers convicted in abduction, torture of O Dia journalists.
44: Defamation lawsuits filed by a single congressman. Complaints target dozens of journalists for critical coverage.
In a major advance for press freedom, Brazil’s highest court struck down a repressive 1967 law that criminalized broad swaths of sensitive reporting and set harsh potential penalties. But defamation laws remained a concern as penal code provisions allowed prison penalties for libel and slander. And a flood of civil defamation cases continued unabated, in some cases leading lower courts to issue censorship orders that barred news media from covering public issues, including alleged corruption involving government officials and business people.
THE PRESS: 2009
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In April, the Supreme Federal Tribunal ruled that the 1967 Press Law, an anachronistic remnant of the country’s military rule, violated constitutional guarantees of free expression. The court had earlier suspended 22 of the law’s 77 articles pending its final ruling. CPJ and others had campaigned against the law, arguing that it was inconsistent with regional standards for free expression. The press law defined violations in sweeping terms that included reporting deemed offensive to public morals; reporting a plaintiff found damaging to his reputation or offensive to his dignity; reporting the government deemed subversive; and reporting of “true” facts that might be considered distorted or provocative. It also allowed authorities to censor media outlets and writers, seize publications, and impose prison terms of up to three years for violations.
The high court’s decision bolstered a growing body of international legal opinion that civil remedies provide adequate redress for press offenses. In a landmark 2004 decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the legal arm of the Organization of American States, said that critics of public officials must have “leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest.” Laws that criminalize speech are incompatible with the rights established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Brazil has ratified. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated in 1994: “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence.”
Under provisions that remain in the country’s penal code, however, Brazilian journalists could still be jailed for up to two years for criminal defamation. The law has been used to harass and intimidate critical journalists, CPJ research found.
Civil defamation provisions have also been used to silence journalists. Thousands of the lawsuits fill trial court dockets, filed by businessmen, politicians, and public officials who allege that critical journalists and outlets have offended their honor, CPJ research shows. Plaintiffs often file multiple suits on a single matter and seek disproportionately high damages as a way of straining the financial resources of their critics. The practice has become so common it is known as the “industry of compensation.”
More alarming, though, are censorship orders issued by trial courts that bar media defendants from covering important public issues while the lawsuits are pending. In one notable case, on July 31, Judge Dácio Vieira of the Federal District Court in Brasília barred the daily O Estado de São Paulo and its Web site Estadão from publishing reports on a corruption scandal involving the family of former Brazilian President José Sarney, according to local news reports. The case stemmed from a report on the allocation of federal contracts to relatives and close friends of Sarney, who was chairman of the Senate in 2009. O Estado de São Paulo was the first outlet to report on Sarney’s alleged involvement in the scandal. Vieira ruled that O Estado de São Paulo would be fined 150,000 reals (US$87,000) for every story published on the case. The judge said the ban would apply to other news outlets seeking to republish the daily’s stories. The paper lost an appeal, but the Sarney family dropped the case in December.
On July 6, prominent journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto, editor of the Belém-based newspaper Jornal Pessoal in the northern state of Pará, was found liable in a civil defamation suit and ordered to pay US$15,000 in damages—the equivalent of the paper’s revenue for a year and a half. The suit was brought by brothers Ronaldo and Romulo Maiorana Jr., owners of the Organizações Rômulo Maiorana media group, the biggest communication company in northern Brazil. The Maiorana brothers argued Pinto had damaged the family’s reputation with a 2005 story on the media group’s economic power and influence. Members of the Maiorana family filed four other civil defamation suits against Pinto, a 2005 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner.
The powerful and privileged filed other cases. Congressman Edmar Moreira filed more than 44 suits against at least 38 journalists and 13 news outlets for reports on his fortune and his alleged involvement in official corruption. A court in southeastern Espírito Santo state ordered the news Web site Século Diário to take down three stories on the alleged involvement of two state judges in a scheme to harass local lawyers. In São Paulo state, Adamantina Mayor José Francisco Figueiredo Micheloni filed a suit against the local daily Jornal da Cidade based on a quote from a councilwoman that had offended him. A local businessman in northeastern Fortaleza obtained an injunction barring O Povo media group—which includes a newspaper, radio stations, a TV station, and online services—from reporting on his finances. The plaintiff alleged the news organization had violated his privacy, although O Povo said the same financial information was publicly available online.
Brazil ranked 13th on CPJ’s Impunity Index, a list of countries in which journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes. While the ranking reflected Brazil’s longstanding record of violence against the press, authorities have made recent progress in bringing perpetrators to justice.
In May, one man was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison for participating in the murder of Nicanor Linhares, the provocative host of a top-rated radio show in the state of Ceará. Linhares was killed in June 2003 by two armed men who stormed into his broadcast booth at Rádio Vale do Jaguaribe in the city of Limoeiro do Norte. Charges were still pending in late year against the alleged masterminds of the crime, a local politician and her spouse, a federal judge.
In August, former police officers Odin Fernandes da Silva and Davi Liberato de Araújo were convicted and sentenced to 31 years in prison for being part of the militia that kidnapped and tortured two journalists and a driver working undercover for the Rio de Janeiro-based daily O Dia in the Rio slum Batan in 2008. The kidnappers beat the journalists and the driver repeatedly, gave them electric shocks, put plastic bags over their heads, and threatened to kill them, they said. The team was released seven hours later.
Despite the convictions, media workers continued to be targets of violence and obstruction, especially in the country’s interior. On June 27, in northern Amazonas, Transportation Minister Alfredo Nascimento and his son allegedly assaulted Ronaldo Lázaro Tiradentes, a reporter for Tiradentes Radio and Television, in the Manaus Airport parking lot, local news reports said. The journalist, who filmed parts of the episode with his cell phone, filed a complaint with the federal police.
On July 16, military police tried to prevent journalists from covering a protest outside the home of Rio Grande do Sul Gov. Yeda Crusius in the state capital, Porto Alegre. The governor was under investigation in connection with the alleged misappropriation of more than US$24 million. Police detained freelance photographer Antônio Carlos Argemi when he tried to step out of a restricted area to take pictures. Argemi was released without charge.
In August, Carlos Baía, director of the Barcarena-based Metropolitana Radio Station in Pará, received telephone death threats after denouncing alleged fraud in Barcarena City Hall, news accounts said. After filing a police report, Baía resigned and fled the city. Later that month, four unidentified men attacked the offices of Marília-based radio Diário FM in São Paulo state, according to local news reports. The assailants bound the security guard with rope and destroyed the central transmission equipment. The station was off the air for three hours after the attack.