Rio de Janeiro, February 23, 2022 – Authorities in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state should not pursue criminal defamation charges against journalist Thiago Herdy, and should refrain from criminally investigating journalists in retaliation for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
On February 16, Minas Gerais state Attorney General Jarbas Soares Júnior filed a criminal complaint and a civil lawsuit against Herdy, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, a statement by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), and court documents that CPJ reviewed.
The complaint and lawsuit stem from a January 30 article by Herdy, a reporter at the privately owned online news outlet UOL who often reports on politics and corruption, which alleged that Soares Júnior had requested that the state government include compensation for a project in the town of São Francisco, where several of his family members live, in a recent monetary settlement from a mining company.
Fernanda Fiorenzano, a press officer at the Minas Gerais state attorney’s office, told CPJ in an email that Herdy’s report was “offensive to the honor of the Attorney General” and that the criminal complaint sought to prosecute him for “crime against honor.”
The Brazilian penal code defines three types of crimes against honor: slander, which can carry up to two years in prison; defamation, which carries up to one year; and injury, which carries up to six months. Soares Júnior’s complaint only references the broad crime against honor; prosecutors can decide which charges to pursue, or whether to drop the investigation.
“Prosecutors should not pursue criminal charges against Brazilian journalist Thiago Herdy, and the Minas Gerais attorney general should refrain from using criminal suits and the very office he oversees to retaliate against the press,” said Natalie Southwick, CPJ’s Latin America and the Caribbean program coordinator, in New York. “Journalists play a key role in ensuring transparency and accountability, and public officials must stop responding to allegations of wrongdoing by hiding behind Brazil’s outdated criminal defamation laws.”
Herdy told CPJ that he reached out to Soares Júnior several days before publishing his article; while the attorney general’s comments were included in his report, they did not address the alleged request to include the São Francisco project in the settlement.
On February 16, Soares Júnior posted on Instagram that he had filed a civil lawsuit and criminal complaint against “the journalist who threw my mother’s history and mine to the wolves.” Herdy said that another journalist told him about that Instagram post, but authorities had not formally notified him of any legal action as of February 22.
“It is an attempt at intimidation,” Herdy told CPJ. “Instead of responding to the core of the report, he [Soares Júnior] attacks the journalist. This is a well-known strategy. As attorney general, he is attacking a fundamental right for everyone, which is the right to information and freedom of the press.”
Herdy said that, in his 16 years of covering politics and corruption, this was the first time he had faced a criminal complaint over his work.
In its statement, Abraji said it was “extremely concerning” that “the head of the state’s prosecutor’s office uses the structure of his cabinet and the strength of his position to ask the very same prosecutor’s office to investigate and prosecute a reporter that wrote a piece about him.”
Brazilian authorities have repeatedly used the country’s outdated criminal defamation laws to pressure and harass journalists, according to CPJ research.