Brazilian journalist Arimatéia Azevedo was recently held for months under house arrest, and his outlet was placed under a judicial gag order. (Photo: Arimatéia Azevedo)

Brazilian journalist Arimatéia Azevedo held for 5 months under house arrest, gag order

From June to November 2020, Brazilian authorities held journalist Arimatéia Azevedo under house arrest, placed his news outlet under a gag order, and detained him multiple times, according to news reports, the journalist, and his two daughters, Haidyne and Ana Azevedo, all of whom spoke to CPJ in phone interviews.

Azevedo is based in Piauí state, in northeast Brazil, and covers topics including local politics, corruption, and crime, principally at the online news outlet Portal AZ, which he founded in 2001, he told CPJ. In his nearly 50-year media career, he has also contributed to the newspapers O Estado, O Dia, Jornal do Brasil, and Meio Norte, the television broadcaster Band, and radio broadcaster O Dia, Haidyne Azevedo said.

On June 12, Civil Police officers in Piauí arrested Azevedo at his home in Teresina, the state capital, on allegations of extortion stemming from a complaint filed by a local doctor whom Portal AZ had covered, according to news reports and the journalist.

His arrest was granted by Judge Valdemir Ferreira Santos of the Piauí Court of Justice’s Center of Inquiries at the request of the Civil Police, according to a copy of the arrest order, which CPJ reviewed. Until the moment of his arrest, Azevedo did not know he was under investigation, the journalist and his daughters said.

The order also called for the arrest of Francisco de Assis Barreto, a university professor in Piauí. Barreto had worked with Azevedo to market and build Portal AZ, according to Ana Azevedo, who described him as her father’s “right hand.”

Authorities also arrested Barreto on June 12, according to news reports. Barreto is not a journalist at Portal AZ, and did not work on the story about the doctor, Azvedo told CPJ.

Authorities held Azevedo at the 12th Police District Unit facility and the local police academy from June 12 to 17; on June 16, officers briefly brought him to Irmão Guido state prison, in Teresina, but then returned him to custody at the academy, he told CPJ.

On June 17, following an appeal from Azevedo’s defense lawyer, Appeals Court Judge Joaquim Dias de Santana Filho ruled the journalist should be sent to house arrest, according to local news reports. Azevedo told CPJ he was returned home that same day.

On January 6, 2020, Azevedo had published an article on Portal AZ, which has since been taken down but which CPJ reviewed, covering an alleged malpractice case involving the doctor.

In February, the doctor filed a complaint with police alleging that Azevedo and Barreto had demanded money in exchange for refraining from publishing anything else related to the case, according to the journalist’s daughters and police documents reviewed by CPJ. Azevedo told CPJ that he denied that he or Barreto had ever made such demands.

The arrest order also prohibited Portal AZ from publishing anything “offensive” about the doctor, the police unit overseeing the investigation, and the police officers working on it, according to news reports and the judge’s decision, which CPJ reviewed.

On June 29, Piauí state Public Prosecutor José Eduardo Carvalho Araújo formally charged Azevedo and Barreto with extortion, according to news reports and the charge sheet, which CPJ reviewed.

Azevedo briefly returned to detention on July 22, after the Second Criminal Chamber in Piauí overturned the decision to grant him house arrest, according to local news reports. He was held at the Irmão Guido prison until July 25, when he was released following a decision to reinstate house arrest by João Otávio Noronha, a judge at the Federal Superior Court of Justice, according to the judge’s decision and Azevedo.

On September 16, Judge Washington Luiz Gonçalves Correia, from the Eighth Criminal Court in Teresina, denied a new request from Azevedo’s defense lawyers to end the journalist’s house arrest and the restrictions on his work, according to news reports and the judge’s decision, which CPJ reviewed. The decision said that the judge could not rule on the matter because the Federal Superior Court of Justice was also examining parts of Azevedo’s case.

On October 9, Cármen Lúcia Antunes Rocha, a Supreme Court judge, overturned the gag order on Portal AZ, according to news reports and the decision, which CPJ reviewed. Rocha wrote that the order could “frustrate the right to information and the publication of news in the public interest.”

On November 24, Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice overturned the decision to place Azevedo under house arrest and freed him, according to news reports and the court’s decision, reviewed by CPJ.

As of mid-December, Azevedo is awaiting trial in the extortion case, he told CPJ. If convicted, he could face between four to ten years in prison, according to Article 158 of the Brazilian Penal Code.

“The preventive arrest order was a very radical decision,” Azevedo told CPJ in December 2020. “It is like if you were found guilty without even going to trial.”

Hearings in Azevedo’s extortion case were held on September 30 and on November 10, and additional hearings are scheduled to take place on January 29 and February 26, 2021, the journalist told CPJ. A date for a ruling has not been set, he said.

CPJ repeatedly messaged Alexandre Andrade Souza, the doctor who accused Azevedo and Barreto of extortion, for comment, but did not receive any responses.

CPJ emailed multiple branches of the Civil Police in Piauí seeking comment, but did not receive any responses. When CPJ emailed the Piauí Court of Justice’s Center of Inquiries for comment, representative Danilo Frota wrote that Judge Santos was on leave and recommended CPJ try to contact him again in January.

The press office of the Piauí Public Prosecutor’s office emailed a statement to CPJ saying that the prosecution’s actions in Azevedo’s case had strictly followed judicial procedures. CPJ also emailed the Piauí Court of Justice’s presidency and the Eighth Criminal Court, but did not receive any responses.

In an unrelated case from early 2020, José Erivan da Silva Lopes, an appeals court judge in Teresina, filed a request for Azevedo’s arrest for slander charges over his 2019 reporting for Portal AZ on alleged corruption in Lopes’ office, according to local news reports and Lopes’ arrest petition, which CPJ reviewed.

Azevedo told CPJ that he requested a preventive block of the arrest order, which was granted.

In a statement sent to CPJ via email, Lopes said Azevedo had maintained a “systematic defamatory attack” against him and has “dedicated himself to offend me aggressively, from insults and degrading adjectives to lying and slanderous publications that shake my honor and health.” 

A hearing in that case took place on November 6; as of December 2020, the case is still pending and no court dates have been set, Azevedo told CPJ.