Brazilian journalist is the target of more than 60 lawsuits after publishing a report on alleged fraud in education

A series of reports on alleged fraud in evaluations of public education in Sobral and other cities in Ceará, in the northeastern region of Brazil, has so far led to 63 lawsuits against journalist Wellington Macedo.

In September 2018, Macedo published, via his YouTube channel, the video report "Educação do Mal" (Evil Education), in which students, parents and former teachers of schools in Sobral, Coreaú and Itapajé denounced alleged fraud in educational assessments.

Wellington Macedo

Wellington Macedo in a screenshot from the Educação do Mal video report

After that, Macedo was sued in 59 lawsuits filed by principals of schools in Sobral, represented by attorney Charles Paiva, a public servant of the municipality's Secretariat of Education. The journalist is also the target of four more lawsuits for calúnia and defamation: from the secretary of Education of Sobral, from a professor and from two school principals, according to what the journalist told the Knight Center.

On Feb. 19, the first hearing uniting the 59 lawsuits against Macedo from the principals was held in Sobral. Each one asks for compensation of R $38,100, which would result in R $ 2.2 million (about US $587,000) if the journalist is convicted in all lawsuits, as reported by Folha de S. Paulo.

Macedo's defense, which had requested a single hearing for the 59 lawsuits, filed a counterclaim in which the journalist accused his accusers of judicial harassment and asked for R $10,000 (about US $2,600) of compensation from each, the journalist said. The request is being analyzed by the judge in charge of the case.

Macedo said that there are principals among the plaintiffs of the 59 lawsuits that were "deceived" by the Municipality of Sobral and did not even know what the lawsuits were about. "Two of them told me that when they were called to a meeting [by the Municipality], they were told that the Municipality itself would file the lawsuit and they were only witnesses," he said. According to the journalist, one of them closed the lawsuit that she was plaintiff of and others allegedly were thinking of following the same path.

Attorney Charles Paiva denied Macedo's allegations in conversation with the Knight Center. According to him, the 59 principals sought out the Municipality and requested the opening of lawsuits against Macedo because he had published "untruths" about Sobral's education system. He stated that the principal who asked for her lawsuit to be closed did so because she moved to another city.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its initials in French) classified the lawsuits against Macedo as “persecution.” “The concerted nature of the lawsuits and the disproportionate amount of damages sought constitute an intimidation campaign designed to have a chilling effect and reduce this journalist to silence,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau, in a release on the organization’s site. “This is a serious violation of the freedom to inform on a subject of the utmost public interest.”

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) also said it "repudiates judicial harassment" against the journalist. "The practice of moving dozens of lawsuits against journalists in small claims courts is a strategy of intimidation and, as such, an attack on press freedom. Certain that the Judiciary of Ceará will follow decisions of the STF [Supreme Federal Court] and other courts in similar cases, Abraji expects that the lawsuits will be rejected," the entity said in a release.

In addition to the lawsuits, Macedo said he received "veiled threats" after the publication of the reports. In a statement to the federal public prosecution made in December, the journalist says he received "messages from third parties about the risk of being killed." "In Sobral I wear a bulletproof vest under my clothes," he said, adding that he had moved out of town for fear of his safety.

City is reference in public education

Sobral ranked first in the Index of Basic Education Development (Ideb) released in September 2018, according to Folha de S. Paulo. The indicator is produced every two years and is calculated from the student's passing rate in schools and the students' scores in an external math and Portuguese assessment.

According to the report "Educação do Mal," both the external evaluations and the school passing rate of the students were allegedly rigged to boost the performance of schools and of the city in quality public education indicators.

Macedo said that during the production of the report, he tried to talk to the Sobral Secretariat of Education about the denunciations, but he did not get a response. "I sought [the Secretariat], but no one speaks, nor the secretary. I sent an email to the secretary, they said they were going to set a meeting. I waited a week, I returned the email and they did not respond,” he said.

Macedo forwarded the Knight Center the email he sent to the advisor of communication of the Municipality of Sobral, Marcos Mesquita, in August 2018, requesting an interview with the Secretary of Education. To the Knight Center, Mesquita said he did not remember receiving the email, but stated that as it was a matter for the Secretariat of Education, he would have forwarded the message to the Secretariat's communication department, which would be responsible for handling the request.

The communication department of the Secretariat of Education of Sobral told the Knight Center that “at no time” were they contacted by the journalist. “We have always been available for visits and interviews for all press outlets as we have already received news teams from Folha de São Paulo, Veja, Época, El País, Estadão, Nova Escola, among others," the entity said.

The Secretariat also said it had "no connection" with lawsuits filed by school principals, but did not respond to questions about the denunciations in the Macedo report.

Macedo's report was published just weeks before the 2018 presidential election, in which one of the main candidates was Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party (PDT), who has Sobral as his political cradle. The city has as mayor Ivo Gomes, also of the PDT and brother of Ciro. The quality of teaching in the city and in the State of Ceará was one of Ciro’s main banners in his presidential campaign. Ciro governed the state between 1991 and 1994, while his brother Cid Gomes (PDT) was governor between 2007 and 2015.

According to the journalist, there are investigations from the public prosecution and the Federal Police about the denunciations that he presented in his report. The Ceará public prosecution confirmed to the Knight Center the existence of an investigation into the alleged fraud, but gave no further information.