The Brazilian government’s concern for the safety of an American journalist stands in contrast to a dismal performance protecting its own reporters. By Carlos Lauría
Brazilian authorities, piqued by revelations of U.S. spying, rushed to offer protection for American reporter Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, after he revealed details of U.S. National Security Agency surveillance activities in the country.
The Brazilian Senate quickly began an official investigation into allegations, leaked to Greenwald by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the American spy agency even intercepted President Dilma Rousseff’s personal communications. To register her anger at the Obama administration, Rousseff postponed a planned October 23 state visit to the United States and later denounced the spying at the United Nations General Assembly.
The government’s proclaimed concern for the safety of an American journalist then reporting for the Guardian of London, however, stands in sharp contrast to the dismal performance of Latin America’s largest country in protecting its own reporters from violence or ridding the country of its onerous criminal defamation laws.
Brazil has seen a sharp rise in the number of journalists killed with impunity in recent years, making it one of the most dangerous countries for reporters in the world. At least four journalists were killed in 2013, three of them in direct retaliation for their journalism.
In addition to this climate of violence, journalists and press freedom advocates have identified judicial censorship as the second-most-critical problem affecting Brazilian reporters and media outlets. In the past five years, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed by political figures, government officials, and businessmen, alleging that critical journalists have damaged their reputation or invaded their privacy, CPJ research shows. The practice has become so common that it is known as the “industry of compensation.” Plaintiffs usually seek court orders to bar journalists from publishing anything further about them and to have existing online material deleted.
News outlets and journalists are often subject to intimidation in the form of multiple lawsuits, straining their financial resources and forcing them to halt their criticism. Lower court judges often admit such lawsuits into court, eventually ruling against the press, CPJ research shows. These rulings are often revoked on appeal, but, by then, the financial damage has been done and information has been censored.
Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel who fought against the military regime in the 1960s and is up for re-election in 2014, has promised reforms and has created a working group to study the issue of attacks against journalists. Concrete measures have been both inadequate and ineffective, journalists and human rights activists told CPJ.
“Even though Brazilian authorities have identified violence as one of the problems affecting press freedom, efforts to address this issue have been clearly insufficient,” said Celso Schroder, president of the National Federation of Journalists, known as FENAJ.
Beyond the death toll in 2013, four journalists were killed for their work in 2012 and three others in 2011. As a result, for the second consecutive year, Brazil appeared on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which calls attention to countries where journalists are frequently murdered and the killers go free.
A total of 27 journalists have been killed in direct reprisal for their work in Brazil since 1992, CPJ research shows. Nine of the 10 journalists killed for their work in the past three years had reported on official corruption or crime, and all but one worked in provincial areas.
Brazil’s official reaction to the spike in violence against the news media–not unlike its response to widespread street protests in 2013 over rising public transport costs, political corruption, crime, and the government’s lavish spending on sports stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics–has been mainly rhetorical.
Federal Human Rights Minister Maria do Rosário Nunes established a working group in March 2013 aimed at discussing violence against reporters, referring cases to the appropriate authorities, and following up on judicial investigations. Its members–several civil society groups, representatives from the presidency, and the communications and justice ministries–met several times throughout the year.
The idea, according to Do Rosário, is to “evaluate and assess risks for journalists under threat and create a monitoring system that can effectively track free press violations.” Do Rosário, who reports to the president, acknowledged that the situation for reporters working in isolated areas is dire. Victoria Balthar de Souza Santos, a spokeswoman in her office, told CPJ that the group is seriously considering a permanent watchdog unit to monitor threatened journalists.
A member of the working group, Article 19, a U.K.-based organization that champions free speech, has recommended creating a federal program to protect threatened journalists in imminent danger, according to Paula Martins, Article 19’s director in South America. Risk evaluation and protective measures would be decided by a group composed of members of civil society with expertise on press issues, freedom of expression, and human rights, Martins said.
If created, Brazilian officials told CPJ, the program would replicate one currently in place since 2004 for the protection of human rights advocates. That program provides assistance, including relocation and police protection, for those who have received serious threats or feel under attack for their work. While this program has assisted a number of human rights activists, it still has several problems, according to Martins. “It lacks resources, there is not much official information available to the public, and there are serious coordinating problems between the states and the federal government,” she said.
A similar protection program in Colombia is often cited for helping to reduce violence against journalists. In Colombia, a committee of government officials and civil society representatives meets frequently to assess the security needs of journalists under threat. In some cases, the government arranges direct protection, including security guards, while in other cases it supports such tactics as relocation. Though hardly flawless, the program has assisted numerous journalists under threat and prevented physical attacks against Colombian reporters, according to CPJ research.
One of Brazil’s leading investigative journalists, Mauri König, who writes for the daily Gazeta do Povo in Curitiba, said such a program is long overdue. “The government has taken too long to establish a protection mechanism, and in the meantime, journalists continue to be killed with impunity,” he said.
The number of fatalities among journalists in recent years reflects the failure of the Rousseff administration to prevent them. Journalism is now a high-risk profession in Brazil, and impunity is still a problem despite sporadic progress made by Brazilian prosecutors. CPJ has documented convictions in at least six killings of journalists in recent years. In August 2013, for instance, João Francisco dos Santos was sentenced to 27 years in prison on charges of shooting and killing radio journalist and blogger Francisco Gomes de Medeiros in the northeastern city of Caicó, according to news reports. Gomes was shot at least five times in front of his home on October 18, 2010. Though the conviction is a step toward improving Brazil’s deteriorating record on impunity, justice is sluggish, some cases can drag on for years, and only a few are ever solved, CPJ research shows.
Several journalists, legislators, and government officials believe that a project under consideration by Congress will speed cases through the judicial system. The bill would give federal police jurisdiction to investigate crimes against journalists when there is evidence of lapses or incompetence at the state level. The presidents of both chambers of Congress, Sen. Renan Calheiros and Deputy Henrique Alves, told CPJ they will support any measure to combat impunity in the cases of murdered journalists.
Two of the largest local press groups, FENAJ, and the Brazilian Press Association, known as ABI, representing editors and reporters throughout the country, back the proposal. “Investigations must rely on the hands of federal authorities,” said FENAJ’s Schroder, who believes federal police have more resources and are less corrupt. The Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists, or ABRAJI, whose directors cannot reach consensus, has not endorsed the bill. Fernando Rodrigues, one of the group’s directors and a prominent journalist with the daily Folha de Sao Paulo, believes the bill is not inclusive enough, because it fails to refer to the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Rodrigues said he fears it could be interpreted as a privilege for reporters at a time when everyone is threatened by escalating violence across the country. During ABRAJI’s annual congress in October, Minister Do Rosário said that federalization of crimes that violate human rights, including the murder of journalists, would help to combat impunity.
Article 19’s Paula Martins said the bill may not be necessary, because a constitutional amendment approved in 2004 addresses grave human rights abuses. Constitutional Amendment 45 reformed more than 20 provisions of the Brazilian Constitution, establishing better judicial mechanisms to protect human rights, according to Martins. The reforms amended Article 109, granting the Attorney General’s Office the power to transfer a case to federal jurisdiction when grave human rights violations are suspected. Though no cases have been transferred to federal jurisdiction under this reform, in theory, federal prosecutors can invoke the amendment to investigate such cases.
Laura Tresca, Article 19’s freedom of information officer in Brazil, said that in addition to the amendment, there is also legislation dating to 2002 that allows federal police to investigate crimes against journalists. While this is true, the legislation says federal authorities may intervene only once officials establish that the crime constitutes a human rights violation. Deputy Delegado Protógenes, a former federal police officer, presented the original proposal in April 2011 and said he would consider introducing changes to the bill in order to strengthen it and then steer it through the legislative process.
Another Latin American nation, Mexico, with an even worse record of violence against journalists, has adopted sweeping reform legislation to tackle its own problem. On May 3, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed legislation that enabled a constitutional amendment giving the federal government broader jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against freedom of expression.
With the amendment of Article 73 of the Mexican Constitution, federal authorities have jurisdiction over any crime against “journalists, people, or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press.” The reform followed years of advocacy by CPJ and other press freedom groups, and is only one step toward bringing to justice the killers of Mexican journalists.
In soccer-crazed Brazil, even critical sports commentary can turn deadly which is why one family is demanding justice through the courts while the proposed bill to expand federal police powers remains stalled in the Chamber of Deputies.
Valério Luiz de Oliveira, a reporter with Radio Jornal in the city of Goiânia, was shot to death by an unidentified gunman on a motorcycle in July 2012. Luiz was known for his criticism of the management of the local soccer team Atletico Goianiense, according to news reports. Before his death, he was barred from entering the team’s headquarters. In February 2013, the authorities arrested the former vice president of the club, three members of the military police, and a butcher, all accused of involvement in the killing. The five suspects were released in May after an injunction filed by their lawyers. Then, in September, Valério Luiz Filho, the journalist’s son, requested a federal court hearing before the state legislature in Goiânia, alleging that state authorities were incapable of solving the crime because of pressure and intimidation. As of early November 2013, his request remained unanswered.
The elimination of Brazil’s infamous 1967 Press Law, enacted during military rule, by the Supreme Federal Tribunal in 2009 was hailed as a step forward in the campaign against restrictive defamation laws in the Americas. But journalists can still go to jail for their work. Different articles of the penal code (138, 139, and 140) stipulate a month to two years in prison for defamation and slander, with more severe penalties when the crime is committed against the president, or against the head of a foreign government, against a public official in the performance of his official duties, or against a person who is disabled or over 60 years old (Article 141).
Claims of defamation are clearly visible in Google’s Transparency Report, which was released for the first time in 2009. It compiles requests from governments to remove content from the company’s platforms. Brazil is ranked at the top of the list. During the second half of 2012, Google documented a surge in requests from Brazil, representing an increase of 265 percent compared with the previous reporting period. The main reason for the increase were the 2012 municipal elections. Almost half of the total requests called for the removal of 756 pieces of content related to alleged violations of the Brazilian Electoral Code, which forbids defamation and commentary that offends candidates. Google has appealed on the basis that the content is protected by freedom of expression under the Brazilian Constitution.
Local journalists believe that politicized decisions by the judiciary are hindering coverage of issues of national interest. “Censorship imposed by lower courts often limits press freedom and creates a climate of legal insecurity among journalists,” said Mauri König, a 2012 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner. On many occasions, he said, reporters avoid controversial issues fearing legal persecution.
But prominent members of the judiciary play down the threat. Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, as well as one of his predecessors, Antonio Cesar Peluso, each told CPJ that they do not believe that judicial censorship is a big issue, despite research by local and international groups that shows otherwise. Though both acknowledged that there have been instances in which plaintiffs who felt that their honor had been challenged or their privacy invaded have succeeded in blocking publication, they argue this does not represent a threat to press freedom in Brazil. Both said that freedom of expression guarantees in the constitution are strong enough and that judicial censorship cases are not widespread and do not pose a serious threat. When confronted with cases documented by human rights groups, they said that most of the decisions are later revoked on appeal. Both defended the independence of the Brazilian judiciary.
There is a melancholy aspect to modern-day Brazil that stands in contrast to its storied beaches, bossa nova rhythms, glorified soccer tradition, and the vibrant wilderness of the Amazonian rainforest. Economic inequality and extreme poverty, a crack-cocaine epidemic, human trafficking, and deadly violence are some of the country’s various challenges. The violence against journalists and censorship are serious setbacks that have degraded the press freedom landscape and require a decisive government response. Without free and independent journalism to report on these shortcomings and spur public debate, it will be difficult to resolve them.
As the host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil expects to receive a major influx of tourists in the next few years. With millions of visitors crowding the world’s fourth-largest democracy, and the fifth-most-populous nation, these issues will come under increased international scrutiny.
Responding to the massive protests in 2013, Rousseff tried to assure the world that Brazil is a peaceful nation. “Football and sport are symbols of peace and peaceful coexistence among peoples,” she said in a nationally televised speech.
As Brazil’s profile rises in concert with its global influence, the Rousseff administration believes 2014 will be a great opportunity to show off Brazil’s rich culture. The president, who will be in the midst of the election campaign during the World Cup, knows that all eyes will be on Brazil. Journalists and free-speech advocates hope the government, shamed by the nation’s poor record on press freedom, will take decisive action to address the threats to Brazil’s media. “Unpunished violence against the press and judicial censorship will certainly damage the country’s image before international public opinion,” König said.
As the World Cup draws nearer, Brazil must go from rhetoric to action. Deadly violence against the press, impunity, and censorship, call into question Brazil’s true commitment to democratic values and human rights.
CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría, a native of Buenos Aires, is a widely published journalist who has written extensively for Noticias, the leading Spanish-language news magazine.