Attacks on the Press 2010: Brazil

Top Developments
• Judicial censorship rampant; order bars paper from covering corruption allegations.
• Convictions won in journalist’s murder as Brazil makes strides against impunity.

Key Statistic
398: Demands to remove online content made by Brazilian authorities to Google in the first six months of 2010.

Continuing a pattern of extensive censorship imposed from the bench, regional judges banned dozens of news outlets from covering some of the most important topics of the day, including issues involving the October general election, good governance, and public integrity. The national daily O Estado de S. Paulo faced a censorship order throughout the year that prevented the paper and its website from reporting on a corruption investigation involving the family of Senate President José Sarney. A provincial reporter was murdered in reprisal for his work, while other reporters and media workers operating outside large urban centers faced attacks as they covered politics and corruption.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
United States
Other nations

Regional courts banned news media from reporting on a wide array of important public issues, CPJ research showed. In May, a civil court in the state of São Paulo ordered the daily Diário do Grande ABC to stop publishing stories on alleged government mismanagement of public school supplies after the mayor of São Bernardo do Campo said the paper was damaging his reputation. In September, an electoral court in the state of Mato Grosso prohibited the Gazeta Comunicação media group from running stories about Deputy Carlos Abicalil’s position on abortion. News reports said the congressman supported legislation decriminalizing abortion, a claim he denied. The same month, an electoral court in Tocantins state barred 84 media outlets, including O Estado de S. Paulo, from publishing and broadcasting stories on a criminal investigation involving Gov. Carlos Gaguim. A higher tribunal overturned the decision in Tocantins state, but many censorship orders remained in effect.

Over the past several years, businesspeople, politicians, and public officials have filed hundreds of lawsuits alleging that critical news media were offending their honor or invading their privacy, CPJ research showed. The plaintiffs in these cases typically seek injunctions to bar the press from publishing anything further about them or to remove offending online material. A 2010 report by Google said Brazilian authorities had demanded that content be removed from the company’s servers on 398 occasions in the first six months of the year, twice the number of the next country, Libya. Most of the Brazilian demands were court orders, Google said. The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas documented 21 cases of judicial censorship in just the weeks leading up to the October 3 presidential election. The study showed censorship was imposed on newspapers, broadcasters, news websites, and blogs. Several outlets across Brazil were fined, ordered to remove content, barred from publishing or airing specific information, and sued by candidates and political parties, the Knight analysis found.

One of the most prominent censorship orders barred the daily O Estado de S. Paulo and its website from publishing reports on alleged nepotism and corruption involving Fernando Sarney, son of José Sarney, the Senate leader and former president. The order was first imposed in July 2009 after O Estado–citing leaked wiretap transcripts from a federal investigation–charged that the Sarney family had used its influence to award jobs and give raises to friends and relatives. Judge Dácio Vieira banned further coverage by O Estado and said the paper would be fined 150,000 reals (US$88,000) for each story published on the case. The Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country’s highest court, was due to rule on the paper’s appeal in 2011. The paper has argued that the ban is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Federal Tribunal has been generally supportive of press freedom in its rulings, including a September 2010 decision striking down a prohibition on broadcasters using “trickery, montages or other features of audio or video to degrade or ridicule a candidate, party or coalition.” The 1997 law established fines of up to US$60,000 for media that poked fun at politicians, a ban designed to keep humorists and comedians from lampooning candidates during the election. Carlos Augusto Ayres de Freitas Britto, the court’s vice president, said only a state of emergency could warrant such limits on free expression.

Dilma Rousseff, an economist and former chief of staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, defeated former São Paulo Gov. José Serra in an October 31 presidential runoff. Rousseff had a contentious relationship with the press during a bitter political campaign; Lula himself accused the news media of being biased against his protégé. In a speech soon after her victory, Rousseff pledged that her government would guarantee freedom of expression in Brazil, although she did not provide any specifics. Lula, whose approval ratings remained very high in opinion polls, ended his eight years as president with a mixed press freedom record. The government conducted several successful investigations into journalist murders, representing a major step forward in the country’s campaign against impunity. But judicial censorship has become a grave problem, seriously inhibiting the ability of journalists to report on issues of public interest. Reporters continued to be killed in the country’s interior, where the state has a weak presence, while coverage of organized crime exposed even urban reporters to serious risks.  

Provincial reporters were vulnerable to attack for their reporting on local politics and corruption. Francisco Gomes de Medeiros, news director of the local station Radio Caicó, was shot to death on October 18 in the northern city of Caicó. Police arrested a suspect identified as João Francisco dos Santos a day later and said he had confessed to killing Gomes in reprisal for the reporter’s coverage of his 2007 armed robbery conviction. But a state prosecutor told local news media that he believed dos Santos was actually a hired assassin. By December, investigators accused Vladir Souza do Nascimento, a convicted felon serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking, of hiring dos Santos. News reports quoted investigators as saying that Gomes’ coverage had hindered criminal activities being run by Souza from prison.

In May, three hooded attackers abducted and tortured Gilvan Luiz Pereira, publisher and editor of Sem Nome, a weekly known for its critical coverage of the local government in Juazeiro do Norte, Ceará state, according to local news accounts. But police intercepted the kidnappers’ vehicle in the city’s outskirts, causing the assailants to flee and allowing the journalist to be rescued, according to the news website Portal Imprensa. Pereira told CPJ that he was hospitalized for four days and needed 42 stitches to close a head wound. State police accused two mayoral bodyguards of kidnapping and torturing the journalist. The case was pending in late year.

In an important step in combating impunity in journalist murders, prosecutors won convictions in the 2007 killing of reporter Luiz Carlos Barbon Filho. In March, a court in São Paulo sentenced two military police officers and a businessman to 18 years and four months in prison apiece on charges of aggravated murder and criminal association, press reports said. A third police officer was convicted and given 16 years and four months in prison on charges of aggravated murder. Hooded assailants shot Barbon, 37, at close range while he was sitting on a bar terrace in the southern city of Porto Ferreira. The journalist had drawn wide attention with a 2003 report on a local child prostitution ring. The report, published in Realidade, a daily owned by Barbon, resulted in the convictions of 10 people.

Separately, in November, police in Rio de Janeiro arrested the drug kingpin and fugitive Eliseo Felicio de Souza during a police raid in the notorious shantytown Complexo do Alemão, press reports said. De Souza, one of seven men convicted in the 2002 killing of TV Globo reporter Tim Lopes, had escaped from prison in 2007 in the midst of a 23-year term.

The Chamber of Deputies took a step toward greater government transparency in April when it passed a bill on access to public information. The legislation would guarantee citizens the right to information on public agencies, including budgets, salaries, staffing, and internal reports. The legislation, pending in the Senate in late year, would require government agencies to provide requested information within 20 days.

The administration prepared a bill to regulate the Internet, sparking concerns among bloggers and free press defenders. The initial draft for a new “Civil Rights Framework for the Internet in Brazil” would have seriously restricted online reporting, Internet experts said. In one of the most controversial sections of the draft, website hosts would have become liable for their users’ content if they did not immediately remove it after receiving notice of a complaint by a third party. CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O’Brien was among a number of domestic and international critics. The Ministry of Justice revised the provision in response to the criticism, making hosts liable only if they fail to comply with a direct court order to remove content. The bill was being readied for introduction to Congress in late year.