After an avalanche of lawsuits, another Brazilian journalist is forced to end his blog: Interview

The courts have become the greatest hurdle to freedom of expression in Brazil, according to international groups like Inter American Press Association and Freedom House. If judicial offensives are a hurdle for large media organizations, any participation in the political sphere by small websites and blogs can be a death sentence. Without the means to shoulder the costs of judicial representation, bloggers can end up bankrupt and forced to close their operation.

That is what happened to journalist Fábio Pannunzio. In an Oct. 31 article published in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Pannuzio claimed the avalanche of lawsuits he faced because of his critical posts led him to stop updating the website Blog do Pannunzio.

"Freedom of expression, in the cultural environment of a democracy that is still not used to criticism (and confuses it with opinion crimes), unfortunately, has become too expensive," lamented the journalist.

In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Pannunzio said that in over 30 years as a journalist working for large television broadcasters he was only sued once and won. In less than four years as a blogger, he had been sued eight times. According to him, it is a sign that anyone who wants to silence critical opinions has figured out there is an institution to help them.

Read the full interview here in Portuguese.

Knight Center: You were already an experienced journalist when you created Blog do Pannunzio. What inspired you to become a blogger?

The blog started in 2009 as a space for my own personal expression. I saw in the Internet a perspective to complement my reporting, to be the owner of my own opinion, something that is never possible working for a commercial broadcaster.

KC: What type of information did you want to publish?

It wasn't just a blog for self-reflection, I liked putting stuff there that shook things up. The blog denounced a gang of human traffickers operating in Paraná and countries like the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and the United States. The gang was the first to try and censor the blog. They got a court order to take down the posts about the case. While the judge was reviewing the appeal, the gang was arrested. But even then they brought another suit against me for moral damages. So those were the first two lawsuits.

To get around the court orders, I had the idea to organize a "censorship exchange" since I was prohibited from talking about the gang's case and the journalist Adriana Vandoni, from the blog Prosa & Política, was also blocked from speaking about José Geraldo Riva, a politician from Mato Grosso. So, we started sharing information and posting accusations about Riva while she denounced the gang. This got me four more lawsuits because I started investigating what Riva was doing. He had 118 charges against him for embezzlement, corruption, and all kinds of deviation and he was the one who charged me with two more criminal lawsuits and another two civil ones against me.

KC: And how much did all these lawsuits cost?

Just last year the costs were R$53,000 in court and lawyer fees. Imagine paying R$53,000 if you're a journalist just living off a salary.

KC: So, were these the costs that forced you to close the blog?

Yes, it's a penalty for someone who doesn't have a business behind them. We're acquitted at the end of the trial but we still have to pay for our defense and all the court costs. I profoundly regret having to close my blog but I don't have the means to pay for the cost of freedom of expression. For an unprotected citizen, it's too expensive.

KC: You never thought to monetize the blog as a way to help pay for the legal expenses?

I never accepted any offer to sponsor the blog because I didn't want to create any commercial conflict of interest with the broadcaster I currently work for, Band. Also, I didn't want to monetize it, it was never the objective, the idea was to have a my own personal space because I already made money doing my job. And there I arrived at this unfeasible situation due to the lack of a truly democratic culture. People confuse the right to criticize with opinion crimes.

KC: What do the lawsuits against you often allege or demand?

They are all for slander, libel or defamation. In the civil sphere, they are legal actions for moral damages based on the articles I posted to the blog. In the case of José Geraldo Riva, for example, he asked for R$2 million in damages. The gang in Paraná that I denounced requested the judge to "make an example" out of me. The objective is not the money, it's really to strangle [our voice]. They know they are going to lose but the kind of people I denounce on my blog are used to the legal framework and it's no trouble for them to start proceedings against someone. It's very easy for them to accuse.

KC: In the article you wrote for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, you said you were only sued once in your entire career as a journalist but that you have been the target of eight lawsuits since you started your blog. Do you think that attempts to censor freedom of expression are greater on the Internet?

I've worked my entire life as a radio and television reporter and was only sued once in that time, a case that I met and won. As a blogger, I wrote similar accusations to those I would say on television but I was sued as an individual. This added a new ingredient to the mix. The figures I was denouncing did not want to take on a big broadcaster with a big business infrastructure, they wanted to target who they thought was most vulnerable to censorship. People tend to be more vulnerable online, where they act autonomously.

KC: Do you know of any other cases of censorship that have shut down political blogs?

There are many cases in Brazil that deserve attention but the judicial censorship of the blog of Adriana Vandoni, a serious journalist that maintains a blog without any financial benefit and who is driven to publicize the allegations she investigates, is not widely know and has lasted for four years.

KC: Are the cases against you still open? Do you feel you will be acquitted in all of them?

Only the one from Paraná is closed. And even still, the case for moral damages against the gang is still open. The lawsuits in São Paulo and those from Riva in Mato Grosso are also pending. One thing that bothers me about the Mato Grosso case is that the presiding judge for criminal cases has a sister who holds a high-ranking position thanks to Riva, president of the state's legislative assembly. I don't know if the ruling will be impartial and I've told my lawyer as much.

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.