Government officials in the administration of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff acknowledged that judicial censorship is inhibiting the work of the local press during meetings with CPJ on Thursday and Friday. At the same time, they said that due to the separation of powers under the Brazilian constitution, there is not much they can do to influence the judiciary.
In a meeting on Friday at Brasília’s Palácio do Planalto (Palace of the Highlands)–the official workplace of the Rousseff and her cabinet–I met with Minister Helena Chagas, responsible for communications at the presidency, and Rodrigo Baena, the president’s spokesman. Built in 1960, Planalto is located in the square of the three powers, close to the federal Congress and the Supreme Federal Tribunal, and was one of the first buildings constructed in the political capital.
I gave both Chagas and Baena copies of CPJ’s yearly survey, Attacks on the Press, and the two reiterated Rousseff’s commitment to guarantee freedom of expression, a pledge she made during her acceptance speech in Brasília in late 2010. The president’s communications team said that Rousseff shares CPJ’s concerns and expressed that the head of state would be willing to discuss the state of press freedom in Brazil during the next U.N. General Assembly in September with our staff and members of the board of directors.
The previous day, Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo described details of a two-year project by his ministry to provide broadband access to a majority of Brazilians, especially those who live in rural and remote areas of the country. “This will strengthen freedom of expression while ensuring the Brazilian access to the Internet,” he said.
Human Rights Minister Maria do Rosário agreed on Thursday that judges, especially those outside large urban centers, are influenced by powerful figures, and have sometimes ruled in their favor–censoring the media. “It is not in the will of the Brazilian government to move away from free expression guarantees, but we must respect autonomy between powers,” she said.
Do Rosário gave details of a program for the protection of human rights defenders, created in 2004. The program provides assistance, including relocation and police protection, for those who have received serious threats or feel under attack for their work. The program, officials at the ministry told me, includes assistance for press freedom cases. When the car of radio journalist Wilton Andrade was set on fire in the northeastern town of Itaporanga D’Ajuda in December, he received assistance from the program and left the town temporarily. Andrade said he believes the attack was related to his reporting on local corruption. Officials told me they are willing to receive and evaluate journalists’ cases from press freedom organizations.
Antonio Cezar Peluso, president of the Supreme Federal Tribunal–the country’s highest court–said he believes that judicial censorship is not a major problem. While Peluso acknowledged that there have been instances where the press has been banned from publication by plaintiffs who felt that their honor had been offended or their privacy invaded, he said that it does not represent a threat to press freedom in Brazil. According CPJ research, in the last few years, 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 criticism. 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.”
In the meeting with Peluso, I also highlighted important achievements in CPJ’s estimation made by the Brazilian judiciary, including recent progress in bringing perpetrators of crimes against journalists to justice, and the May 2009 decision to strike down the 1967 Press Law, a measure that imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.