Brazilian Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa criticizes lack of preparation of journalists covering Supreme Court

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  • October 18, 2013

By Olivia Freitas*

Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, president of the Federal Supreme Court (STF in Portuguese), criticized the journalistic coverage of judicial topics in Brazil. In his opinion, the press has been monothematic and addresses topics on the agenda with little preparation.

Barbosa participated in the Global Investigative Journalism Conference that was held at Pontifícia Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro until Oct. 15. Also present at the roundtable "Brazil - Institutional Advances and Set-backs" was Rosental Alves, a University of Texas professor and the director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, and Fernando Rodrigues, a columnist for Folha de S. Paulo.

"I miss specialized and professional reporting. I don't see journalists with the cleverness to discover major news events in between the lines," Barbosa said. To him, all stories are obsessed with the Mensalão case.

Prior restraint

The minister argued against the country's current ban on unauthorized biographies. However, Barbosa believes that those who violate the rights of the subjects of the biographies should also receive greater penalties. The discussion was revived in the country after musicians Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Djavan and Erasmo Carlos Roberto Carlos united to speak against a legislative initiative to repeal the law and avoid having their biographies published without permission.

"There is no prior restraint in Brazil. In the same manner that the constitution protects freedom of expression, it also equally protects other rights, such as intimacy, privacy, honor and reputation," Barbosa said. "Anyone can denounce violations to their rights."

For the president of the STF, freedom of expression should be guaranteed in all cases. "The ideal would be total liberty for the publication, but each publication should also be responsible for the risks they take and answer economically for them," Barbosa said. As a solution, he proposed that 10 years after the death of a subject, the publication of his or her biography becomes public domain.

Brazilian journalism

Barbosa also talked about racial discrimination in Brazilian newsrooms. According to him, there are few black employees in management positions for media companies. "It is necessary that there exists an agreement between those that have the power of decision, such as the owners and editors, and those that recruit staff. Staff recruiters shouldn't resolve the issue at their discretion, because racial discrimination is something instinctive," he said.

The minister also criticized online journalism. For him, this format has performed poorly in regards to the quality of information published. He then spoke of the lack of diversity of the written press. "It is necessary to increase the political and ideological diversity of the information in print, in a way that can include different points of views without silencing or marginalizing this or that unwanted perspective," Barbosa said.

According to the Chief Justice, the major challenge for journalism is deepening diversity and professional ethics ahead of the current economic challenges. "The press has a very important role in improving institutions and creating awareness among the Brazilian population," he said.

"Brazilian investigative journalism offers a great service to the public and occupies the vacancy left by the lack of institutionality in some of our agencies," said Barbosa. However, according to him, the journalist reports but does not offer a social service with results nor follows up on the issue. In this manner, the Brazilian population creates false expectations about what action authorities will take on an issue.

Barbosa said there is no doubt that state institutions are responsible for deepening investigations into cases denounced in the media. "But in a country like ours, the political system's lack of functionality and multiple interferences lead to stagnation," he said.

Regarding dabbling in politics and a possible presidency bid, the minister said he will think about that when he leaves the judiciary. "I've never thought of politics. I've always had a technical career. The day I leave the Supreme Court I'll have time to think about it. In the moment, I don't have any intention to launch myself as a presidential candidate, but it can be that this will change in the future," Barbosa said.

*Olivia Freitas is a senior journalism student at St. Jude University in São Paulo.

This article was originally published in the official website of the Global Conference of Investigative Journalism.

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.