Brazilian journalist ordered to pay compensation to Sergipe state judge for fictional essay

After being sentenced to seven months in prison for writing a fictional essay, journalist Cristian Góes has been ordered to pay 30 thousand Brazilian Reals (US$11,300) in compensation for moral damages to judge Edson Ulisses, vice president of the Sergipe Justice Tribunal. The decision was announced in late November by judge Aldo de Albuquerque Mello of the 7th Circuit of Aracaju, according to the international organization Article 19.

The essay in question, titled “Me, the colonel within me,” which was published on a blog in May of 2012, is a confession of sorts from a man from the “coronelismo” era that still holds power today. Despite the fact that the text is written in first person and that it makes no indication of setting, the judge alleged that he had felt offended by the expression “jagunço,” which is a Portuguese term that refers to security or contracted murderers hired by rural Brazilian landowners. As a result, he filed both a criminal and civil proceedings against the journalist.

This is the second ruling that has been leveled against Góes. In the realm of criminal law, the Justice Tribunal confirmed that the journalist would be imprisoned for writing the story, arguing that he did not need to use names or other identifiers and that “half words” were sufficient. The sentence was eventually converted into community service, but it is still under appeal. The organization Reporters Without Borders declared the decision “judicial insanity" and an insult to the basic principles of the 1988 democratic constitution.

“These are two sentences that are absurd in all aspects,” Góes declared. “The text is literary and there is no mention of names of people or anything real. The trials were no exception. There was no direct right to a defense. The proceedings were partial, political, irregular, and illegal.”

According to the journalist, the actions are a clear demonstration of the backwardness, authoritarianism, crony relations, and the feeling of absolute power that some exert, acting as if they were God. “It is a clear and direct attack on freedom of expression,” Cristian said, referring to the judge’s ruling, which could be considered a threat to the freedom of expression of others. In the ruling, the judge said that the sentence is not an “imposition of vengeance,” but rather an action to “educate the aggressor,” an example that would dissuade him from committing the same crime in the future.

Legal punishment has become an impediment to freedom of the press in Brazil. International organizations have warned of the risk of censorship. The most recent reports published by the Inter-American Press Association (SIP) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have expressed concern on the use of courts as tools to censor journalists in Brazil. For Article 19, who has accompanied Cristian Góes in his case from the beginning, the journalist is just another example of problem that honor crimes pose to the freedom of expression in the country.

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.