Brazilian Federal Supreme Court justice overturns censorship imposed on journalistic site

On Sept. 19, a justice of the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF for its acronym in Portuguese) overturned prior censorship imposed on Portal 180graus, journalistic site of Piauí in northeastern Brazil, which was decided by a State judge at the end of August.

The judge’s decision was imposed on the media outlet at the request of a businessman investigated in an alleged corruption scheme reported by the publication. According to justice Edson Fachin, this was a ”clear act of censorship.” He also considered the sentence “flagrantly incompatible with the interpretations given by the Court to the fundamental issues constituting freedom of the press.”

The judge considered an appeal of the defense of Portal 180graus and journalists Rômulo Rocha, Apoliana Oliveira and Aquiles Nairó, against whom engineer Gustavo Macedo, owner of the contractor Caxé, filed a lawsuit requesting compensation for moral damages for mention in the articles.

Caxé is one of the companies investigated and quoted in Portal180 reports on the "Idepi case," which concerns the investigation by the Court of Auditors and the State Public Prosecutor's Office on irregularities in contracts between private companies and the Piauí Development Institute (Idepi), a state agency.

On Aug. 23, Judge Lygia Carvalho Parentes Sampaio, from Teresina, the capital of Piauí, granted an injunction requested by Macedo to censor the site during the time that the case was active. Portal 180graus was forced to remove the reports that cite the engineer and the contractor and was prohibited from mentioning them again, under penalty of "a daily fine of R $1,000.00 (about US $319) or a possible increase, in addition to incurring the penalties of crime of disobedience to the judicial order," the sentence says.

In suspending the decision of the judge, the STF justice pointed out that "the descriptive tone used by the journalistic pieces and the reference to the information and official documents obtained through the body in charge of the investigation of the case," the Court of Accounts of the State of Piauí, indicate "the apparent accordance of the article with the factual and legal reality to which the authors of the indemnifying action would be subject."

For Fachin, "at least at the time of the news reports," Portal180 did not disclose "information that is considered to be manifestly false or unfounded." The judge also considered that there was "clear public interest to the information conveyed" by the site.

Portal180 classified the STF minister's decision as "symbolic and expressive" because Fachin is also the rapporteur of the Lava Jato operation, which investigates alleged corruption schemes in the between private companies and representatives of the Brazilian state.

The journalist Rômulo Rocha, the main person responsible for the reports of Portal180 on the Idepi case, celebrated the decision of the Brazilian STF justice. "There is nothing more noble than to defend Freedom of Expression, a world right recognized and persecuted, just as there is nothing more noble than to defend the Constitution of one’s country, being not able to be held responsible for the ignorance of some operators concerning the law in its totality,” he wrote.

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.