A federal police vehicle is seen in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 26, 2020. The country's Minister of Justice recently called for criminal investigations into two journalists and a cartoonist. (Reuters/Pilar Olivares)

Brazilian Minister of Justice calls for criminal investigations of 2 journalists, cartoonist

Rio de Janeiro, July 16, 2020 — Brazilian authorities should refrain from investigating or prosecuting cartoonist Renato Aroeira and journalists Ricardo Noblat and Helio Schwartsman, and should not threaten journalists with criminal investigations, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 15, Brazilian Minister of Justice André Mendonça published a series of tweets saying he had requested the Federal Police and the Federal Public Prosecutor to investigate Aroeira for publishing a cartoon and Noblat for reposting that cartoon on Twitter.

Mendonça tweeted that the cartoon violated Article 26 of the National Security Law, which criminalizes slander and defamation of the president and other heads of state. According to the law, those crimes are punishable with up to four years in prison.

The Ministry of Justice later tweeted a confirmation that the investigation request had been made.

On July 7, Mendonça tweeted that he was also requesting the Federal Police investigate Schwartsman over a column he wrote, which he alleged violated Article 26 of the National Security Law. Mendonça claimed his request was based on Article 31 of the law, which establishes that the Federal Police will open criminal inquiries following the request of the Minister of Justice.

“Brazilian law enforcement should close any criminal investigations into cartoonist Renato Aroeira and journalists Ricardo Noblat and Helio Schwartsman, and should refrain from investigating members of the press,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “The use of the National Security Law to judicially harass journalists is a clear strategy to limit free expression and silence a critical press.”

Aroeira publishes political satire cartoons on the Brasil 247 news website; Noblat covers national political news on his daily blog, hosted by the Veja news magazine; Schwartsman is an opinion writer and reporter at the privately owned newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

The investigation into Aroeira and Noblat is based on a June 14 cartoon by Aroeira, which Noblat shared in a tweet later that day; the cartoon portrays President Jair Bolsonaro transforming a medical red cross into a swastika.

Following the publication of that cartoon, the office of the Communications Secretary published a tweet accusing Noblat and Aroeira of breaking the law by attributing the crime of “Nazism” to Bolsonaro and said that, unless the cartoonist and the journalist could “prove” their accusation against the president, they would be held accountable.

Aroeira, who has been a professional cartoonist for over 50 years, told CPJ in a phone interview that he first learned about the criminal investigation when people started writing to him to express solidarity. He said that he has received an increased number of threatening messages on social media in recent years.

Noblat told CPJ via phone that the Federal Police had requested his testimony as part of an investigation into the cartoon a few weeks ago.

On June 18, the opposition Sustainability Network party filed a petition in Brazil’s Supreme Court, arguing that a criminal inquiry into Aroeira and Noblat over the cartoon was unconstitutional, according to the Supreme Court website and news reports.

In its petition, which CPJ reviewed, the party asked the court to suspend the investigation until it could rule on its constitutionality.

In a statement sent to CPJ via messaging app, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, the head of that party, accused Mendonça of “acting like a lawyer for the President and demonstrating total submission to the President’s authoritarian wishes.”

On July 14, in a document sent to the Supreme Court and reviewed by CPJ, Mendonça defended the criminal investigation, stating that the cartoon and its dissemination on social media had “exceeded the limits of freedom of expression” and “negatively impacted the honor and the image of the President.”

The separate investigation into Schwartsman was prompted by the journalist’s July 7 column in Folha de S.Paulo titled “Why I hope Bolsonaro dies,” published after the president was diagnosed with the coronavirus, the journalist told CPJ via email.

Schwartsman said he found out about the investigation from a colleague at the newspaper. He told CPJ that he believes the investigation is an attempt to cause more self-censorship among journalists.

An employee of Supreme Court Minister Cármen Lúcia’s cabinet, who identified herself as Rose, told CPJ via phone that no trial dates have been scheduled for the constitutionality case against the criminal investigation.

In emails to CPJ, Mendonça’s office, the Federal Police, and the press office of the Federal Communications Secretary declined to comment on the investigations. 

Noblat told CPJ, “Even if they do not succeed in intimidating us, who drew the cartoon and tweeted it, the investigation ends up intimidating others. It could work to grow fear in other people.”