Brazilian laws obstruct the publication of public figures’ biographies, writers say

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  • October 23, 2013

By Louise Roberts*

The limits that Brazilian law places on the publication of historical biographies threatens freedom of expression and the preservation of memory, writers Mário Magalhães and Audálio Dantas said at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference while discussing the challenges of writing an unauthorized biography.

For Audálio - the author of a book that tells the story of journalist Vlado Herzog - the payment of 10 percent of profits from sales to the subjects of the biography, or to their families, is "an action against freedom of expression." To write "The Two Wars of Vlado Herzog," the journalist searched for information about the life of Herzog in the National Archive.

"I had, in my hands, the authorization of the family to see the documents, but in the Archive they told me that I also had to present the death certificate. I refused to provide a false document. Herzog didn't kill himself. He was tortured and assassinated," said Audálio. The author had to seek the Minister of Justice to obtain permission. Once in the Archive, the writer had difficulties finding information.

"Many of the documents I was seeking were hidden and many more were in their right place. However, practically no documents existed about Vlado between May and December 1975, only a few limited reports and the manipulated documents about his suicide," the writer said.

Audalio also said that the majority of the documents that he had access to were falsified. "The dictatorship continues to persist in various instances in the Democratic Republic of Brazil."

The author of the Marighella biography, Mário Magalhães, considered that the conditions that the legislation forecasts for the publication of biographical works on public figures are "very serious."

"Marighella has had an amazing life and I had to delight my readers with his story. For him, I received permission from his wife and son," the writer said.

This kind of goodwill is rare. "Things aren't always given this way; however, the family of Marighella knows that his story doesn't belong to his wife, nor to his son, nor to me. It belongs to Brazil," Magalhães.

According to Brazilian law, it is not allowed to write a biography that undermines the morality and reputation of public figures. "The State cannot prohibit someone from telling the story of a public person with public impact," Magalhães said. "There were guerrillas who confronted their families to go and fight in the streets. Nowadays, their families, with the backing of the law, don't permit anyone to write about them. This is the type of wealth that is lost."

Magalhães also recalled the case of construction worker Amarildo de Souza, arrested in Rocinha by the police three months ago to be interrogated in the Unit of Police Peacekeepers (UPP). More than 20 agents that serve at the UPP base are being investigated for suspicions of torture, assassination and the disappearance of the body.

"It's been three months today since Amarildo disappeared. The mayor of Rocinha, Edson Santos, along with other officials, is one of the suspects (surrounding his death). Mayor Edson is a public figure, but according to the law, his biography can only be written if he authorizes it, and under his terms. This is rhetorical moralism," Magalhães.

The work that goes into writing a biography is extensive and can take years. In order to be able to finish his book, Magalhães had to dedicate himself exclusively to it. When he was asked about the basic tools needed to be a good investigative journalist, he rapidly responded: "It is necessary to know how to tell a story. You all, journalists, don't underestimate the talent required to tell a good story."

Journalist Eliane Brum moderated the discussion of Magalhães and Audálio and responded to three questions about the importance of knowing how to tell stories. Read the interview here. 

*Louise Roberts is a fourth year journalism student at the School of Communication of UFRJ.

This article was originally published on the 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.