Abraji's Ctrl+X project shows an increase in prior censorship during Brazilian municipal elections

The 2016 election season in Brazil put Ctrl+X, a platform created to monitor lawsuits that demand the removal of content from the internet, to the test. The site found that “electoral lawsuits,” one of the subsets of legal proceedings tracked by the site, increased 33 percent in recent municipal elections in 2016 when compared to the elections of 2012. In many of these cases, politicians and parties go through designated electoral courts to sue journalists and get information removed from the internet.

There were 559 court actions this year compared with 419 in the elections of 2012, according to Ctrl+X, a platform from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji for its acronym in Portuguese).

The project, which maps lawsuits against the disclosure of information in Brazil, recorded another alarming fact: requests for prior censorship skyrocketed in the last elections. The legal processes that include this restriction quadrupled compared to 2012 elections, from 23 to 93 cases.

Between 2002 and 2016, according to a survey from Ctrl+X, about 10 percent of electoral lawsuits included requests for prior censorship. Among these cases, nearly 20 percent were granted by the judge, meaning that the outlet, company or journalist were forbidden to publish, in the future, any information about a particular subject or person.

“Those are lawsuits that, in addition to demanding the withdrawal of content, ask the company to not publish some information in the future. Something that, according to them, can hurt the honor and dignity of a candidate, for example. Then the journalist has to guess whether the candidate will be offended or not. It’s a kind of censorship to prevent information, even before it is published, from reaching the population,” said journalist Tiago Mali, coordinator of Ctrl+X, to the Knight Center.

According to Mali, knowing how the judiciary works can explain this high approval rate for applications for prior censorship.

“During elections, these judges, who in most cases are not electoral judges, are recruited by the electoral courts to help judge this kind of case. So they often have no experience in this area,” Mali said.

Additionally, the judges are pressured to decide quickly to prevent a candidate from being damaged in the campaign and from interfering with the outcome of the election.

"Some judges are very sensitive to the argument that if we do not remove the information, it is possible that the candidate will lose the election. So the judge ends up acting out of precaution, but may, in some cases, override the merit of the news, whether it is legitimate or not, without thinking about issues such as freedom of information and expression,” Mali said.

According to the project, more than 100 media outlets were sued during the 2016 elections. Abraji is especially concerned with the cases of regional newspapers on the municipal or district level, bloggers and small media companies, which don’t have the infrastructure to defend themselves in court.

According to Mali, traditional media companies are sued more often, in terms of the total number of legal actions, but they have legal departments that can protect journalists.

“There is a very large number of small media being targeted by these lawsuits. When it happens to independent journalism initiatives, systematically, they cannot afford to defend themselves. Because one has to go to court personally. And if you’re running a journalism project alone, this will prevent you from doing other reports,” Mali said.

For him, these actions end up intimidating journalists, who avoid writing or speaking about a certain topic or politician, so as to avoid reprisals.

Another finding of the survey is that politicians are increasingly concerned about the influence of social media on voters. Of the 1,604 electoral suits recorded by Ctrl+X since 2002, Facebook or Twitter is the defendant in 941 of them, or almost 60 percent of the total.

“The parties and politicians realized that the voter is very informed by social networks, so they try in every way to control these posts. Fearing the criticism will go viral, they sue Facebook to remove the content. More than 50 percent of the cases include Facebook,” Mali said.

According to the journalist, even if a candidate files a complaint in court against a person for a particular post on social media, Facebook and Twitter are also presented as defendants. So, although they are not content producers, they are the most frequent targets of lawsuits in their capacities as publishing platforms.

In addition to Facebook and Twitter, Google and UOL also rank high in instances of lawsuits. “Google is [sued] a lot for videos, to remove content from YouTube. And UOL, because they host many pages, they end up suing the company for it,” the project coordinator explained.

History of the project

The Ctrl+X platform was launched during the 2014 elections as a way to map legal proceedings involving requests to remove content from the internet. Until then, according to Mali, there was no available survey on the subject in Brazil.

When it came into operation, Ctrl-X began to monitor the suits, and to create a retroactive search back to 2002 in order to create a more complete database.

“We were concerned about the use of this type of legal instrument as a means of censorship and intimidation against journalists. But it was necessary to quantify the number of cases first, because no one knew how big this problem was, and only then could we analyze the data,” he said.

The purpose of the project also was to somehow expose the actors that sue the most content producers and therefore try to contain the use of this legal action.

Besides journalists, the project records and monitors all processes against content producers in general, from radio, television, newspapers and blogs, to posts by ordinary citizens on social media. However, Ctrl-X is focused on actions that include requests for the removal of content from the internet. Processes that require only right of reply, moral damages, reparations and fines, for example, are not counted.

At first, Ctrl+X only monitored politicians and parties. In 2015, however, they expanded the scope to include lawsuits filed by companies and individuals not connected to politics.

In September, Ctrl-X partnered with American tech startup Parsehub. With the help of the company, Abraji started using robots that collect data automatically from the electoral court's databases.

Previously, the project relied on the legal sectors of media companies, which sent the cases to Ctrl+X. On the other hand, the robots are able to sift through more than 20,000 lawsuits a week and separate relevant suits -- according to keywords selected by the project team -- into a spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet is then reviewed by staff at Ctrl+X, and if the actions are related to the removal of content, they are cataloged and registered in the platform. Mali considers the change in the system “a great leap forward for the project.”

“At first, we had to raise awareness among the mass media, bloggers and journalists to forward all cases against them. But that is less efficient, because the legal department often has other things to do and cannot send the material. With the robots, we have a much greater reach, we managed to get the cases against small outlets in cities located in the country’s interior,” he said.

The service Parsehub is usually paid, but Abraji managed to obtain the technology for the project for free. Currently, the robots are used to search only electoral courts, but the expectation is that they will also be used to find lawsuits in general.

“The sites of electoral courts hare a similar navigation structure. The Regional Electoral Tribunals are all connected and hosted by the Superior Electoral Court, then it becomes easier to apply the same format to all units of the federation. We we want to expand to all courts of law,” he explained.

Emblematic case

For Mali, an emblematic case of restriction to freedom of information through court proceedings is that of Jonas Hames. The journalist works at Rádio Super 99 FM in the city of São João Batista, in Santa Catarina state.

He covered politicians when a candidate for City Hall, Laudir Krammer, resigned hours before the election in favor of his deputy, Daniel Cândido.

The population did not know about the change of candidates and Cândido was elected. “It’s an incredible case. Cândido took over and was challenged in court, but the trial took so long that he ruled for the whole term,” Mali explained.

In August 2016, the Superior Electoral Court (TSE for its acronym in Portuguese) dismissed the case and revoked the mandate of the mayor. According to the TSE, Krammer, the politician that renounced hours before the election, couldn't even be a candidate in the first place because he had already been convicted of an electoral crime.

“But at that time, Cândido was already a candidate for reelection and ended up winning. Of course, this has been challenged in court again, but despite being removed from City Hall, he will return at the beginning of next year for his second term,” Mali said.

When the TSE revoked Cândido’s mandate, Jonas Hames did a story on the decision. According to Mali, the mayor sued the journalist and a judge ruled that the information be removed.

“It’s a very small town, there are only two media outlets: that of Hames and another which is owned by the mayor’s campaign coordinator. So many people of the city did not know the TSE’s decision,” Mali said. According to him, the case shows how the removal of information can result in large damage to citizens.

“You do not know, but if the people knew about the sentence against Cândido, perhaps he would not have been re-elected,” Mali said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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